Pilates for Aging
As you age, your bodily functions begin to change. You experience a decrease in muscle mass and the functioning of the nervous and muscular systems. The heart rate tends to decline, along with the ability to take in and use oxygen. These changes lead to a reduction in the speed (metabolism) at which the resting body uses fat and other sources to make fuel, leading to increases in body fat. All of these changes – along with bone loss, joint problems, and other medical conditions common to aging – tend to stifle motivation for physical activity. However, avoiding physical activity can make the problems associated with aging worse. An increased risk for injury and a decreased ability to perform activities of daily living eventually begins to compromise quality of life. Fortunately, Pilates is a safe fitness practice that can help counter many of the negative effects of aging.
How Can Pilates Support Healthy Aging?
Pilates is an excellent form of exercise that supports healthy aging. By improving the functioning of the body, Pilates helps you maintain a good quality of life and the ability to perform daily activities.
This is accomplished by improvements in the following areas:
- Flexibility: Promoting muscle flexibility can help maintain the full range of motion of the joints and reduce injury to tight muscles. Pilates accomplishes this through specific movements that incorporate safe stretching with resistance work.
- Strength and Tone: The Pilates method has the benefit of improving muscle strength and tone without increasing bulk. Developing long, lean, and strong muscles is appealing to many. More importantly, strong muscles help the body avoid injury and maintain the capability to perform everyday tasks like lifting objects.
- Functional Use of Joints: Strength and flexibility are most beneficial when tailored to improve the efficient and proper movement of the body’s major joints. This allows for more coordinated movement in everyday activities, which tends to decrease the chance for injury due to overuse and accidents.
- Body Awareness: Pilates is as much a practice in mind-body awareness as a resistance and endurance training method. Being aware of how you move and where the joints and limbs are in space offers benefits in improved coordination and balance.
Incorporating Pilates equipment into an exercise plan can be particularly beneficial for those who have or are at risk for injury, as well as those recovering from surgery. The Reformer is a supine table that allows for the shoulders and feet to be fixed. Springs can be used to increase resistance or provide assistance through a movement. Performing exercises in this position also avoids the jarring and joint compression that accompanies exercising in standing or other unsupported positions. This is particularly important for those with osteoarthritis or osteoporosis. Another piece of equipment called the Cadillac allows the instructor to guide the client in working one area without engaging another. For example, after recovering from hip replacement, this equipment can allow for upper body resistance work, as well as supported lower extremity rehabilitation work.
Prior to beginning any fitness program, it is important to consult a physician. A Pilates instructor will want to review a potential client’s medical history, current medications, and doctor recommendations for accommodating any health conditions. While Pilates is safe for almost anyone at nearly every level of fitness, there are certain conditions or symptoms that must be accommodated or might even be a contradiction to Pilates participation. The instructor will also conduct a fitness assessment that includes measuring the client’s flexibility and strength, as well as assessing balance, joint range of motion, posture, and walking gait. Communicating fitness goals and expectations to the instructor will help him or her design a safe, fun, and challenging program.
Why Use Pilates to Counter the Challenges of Aging?
Pilates is particularly beneficial and appropriate for the older adult for many reasons. It is minimal-impact to no-impact and can be individualized to accommodate specific injuries and physical limitations. It is especially appropriate for maintaining or restoring range of motion and function following injury or operations.
Pilates improves awareness and functioning of the torso, which yields many benefits in performing the activities of daily living such as bending, lifting, sitting, rising, reaching, and many others. It also leads to similar functional improvement and body awareness for other joints.
Another beneficial aspect of Pilates is its ability to improve proprioception, which is the body’s awareness of its place and movement in space. On a practical level for an older individual, this means training the body to better and more efficiently respond to changes, such as regaining or maintaining balance on uneven ground to reduce falls. Increased adaptability and coordination can help decrease the chance of injury from accidents or improper overuse in a particular body movement.
As flexibility, strength, and functional improvements are made, incorporating other forms of fitness such as cardiovascular exercise becomes safer and easier. Complementing a Pilates program with a cardiovascular regimen can be very beneficial to an older adult’s overall health and quality of life.
What is Pilates?
Pilates (puh-LA-teez) is a form of mind-body exercise that focuses on using resistance through gravity, springs, bands, or other equipment to improve core functioning. This is accomplished through increasing strength, endurance, and flexibility of the muscle groups of the abdomen, pelvis, and spine. Pilates can be particularly helpful for targeting specific weaknesses while protecting vulnerable joints or injuries. Pilates can be taught one-on-one, in a group setting, with mats, with or without equipment, or even at home with a DVD or video.
Pilates was developed by German-born Joseph Pilates in the 1920s during his World War I internment in England. To encourage fitness in his fellow internees, Pilates fashioned resistance training equipment from bed springs and parts. After the war, Pilates immigrated to the United States and continued to develop the method in the same building as the New York City Ballet. Popular for decades among dancers and athletes, Pilates has gained mainstream popularity in the last several years and is a mainstay in gyms and fitness centers across the country.
What Changes Does Aging Cause?
As we age, the functioning of many body systems changes. We experience loss of both muscle and bone mass, often accompanied with body fat gain. Changes in our nervous system and sensory functioning can further impact coordination and efficient use of our muscles. Cardiorespiratory fitness tends to diminish as the heart rate slows and blood pressure rises to compensate. We don’t use oxygen as efficiently, so our resting rate of metabolism slows down. Many of these changes are interrelated. Decreases in one area can lead to diminished fitness and function in another. As a result, the aging adult is at increased risk for many common conditions and medical problems that may further limit one’s ability to stay fit and continue to perform life’s daily functions. Many of these changes can be counteracted by various forms of exercise, with Pilates being a particularly safe option that targets systems and structures of the body that are most affected by aging.