Some love the rhythm and solitude of a long Sunday morning run, others get their kicks from the squeals of rubber soles and balls whizzing high-speed around a squash court, while clipping a lead on the dog and braving whatever elements for a stroll on the beach does it for many. When it comes to moving our bodies, it’s different strokes for different folks.
But there’s one form of exercise that ticks so many boxes and offers so many benefits – all of which many of us greatly need in our ‘Stress Epidemic!’, tech-addicted, ‘Sitting down is the new smoking!’ lives – that whatever else you enjoy, you’d do well to consider giving it a go.
Like thousands of others, it was back pain that first led me to a Pilates studio (just a bog-standard room at the local leisure centre; you don’t have to fork out for fancy classes), and it’s the closest thing to a panacea I’ve ever discovered, doing far more than simply improving my posture and providing a top-to-toe stretch.
Here are five reasons to take up Pilates…
“Pilates in its gentlest form is very much a mind/body discipline. It calms you both inside and out, connecting you to your deeper core muscles,” notes personal trainer and Pilates instructor, Mary Huckle. Many ancient health philosophies – which, remember, informed much of modern medicine – revolve around holistic principles, which basically means that body and mind are linked. It’s something Western societies have lost touch with in modern times, but we only have to look at ourselves and our own experiences to be reminded just how true it is that physical and emotional health are closely intertwined: how you get more colds when you’re stressed; why that headache intensifies when you’re under pressure; how positive distractions can take the edge off that sore knee… “Holistic exercise is the ‘buzz’ in the industry right now, and Pilates is hugely popular. It’s a challenging deep-core workout, but is much kinder to body and mind. It allows you to be mindful and focus on the inside, and encourages slower-paced movement based around great technique. The perfect way to take time out, while still getting and amazing feel-good workout!” says Elaine Denton, personal trainer and group health and fitness support for David Lloyd Clubs.
If you think Pilates isn’t ‘your thing’, because you prefer a particular sport or more vigorous exercise, think again. A strong core, good alignment and even better breathing technique will all help support your body in your fitness pursuits elsewhere. A good core isn’t just about blitzing those abs crunches; there’s far more to it – and investing a little time in it through Pilates could pay dividends in terms of boosting your overall performance in whatever exercise you enjoy and preventing injury. “In terms of runners, sometimes a slight imbalance in the body will go on to create problems because it’s such a repetitive movement you’re doing. Even a small adjustment in your posture or in your core stability can make a huge impact,” says Lynne Robinson, founder of Body Control Pilates.
Of course, anybody with a medical condition or chronic pain problems should seek professional advice before embarking on any new exercise regime – but providing you listen to your body, start gently and stay within your limits, Pilates could become a central, possibly even life-changing, part of how you manage your condition in the long-term, both physically and psychologically. Strengthening your core and keeping muscles loose can help to support your body, removing strain from joints, for example. Pilates can also provide a gentle way of keeping your circulation up, hopefully helping relieve pain over time and bring about an often much-needed sense of doing something positive for your body. “Exercise is being described as the new drug, and in particular Pilates is being prescribed by more and more GPs as either an alternative to drugs or as a complementary therapy. It also has proven benefits for sufferers of neurological conditions, as well as the more common postural alignment benefits, for example, improving lower back pain and in certain cases, even avoiding surgery,” says Huckle.
Fans of Pilates are well aware that it works wonders for the mind as well as the body, and a recent study found Pilates really does help us deal with mental and emotional stress. “The scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have identified a circuit, which directly links part of the brain to the adrenal medulla (this is the inner part of the adrenal gland, which triggers an adrenal surge when we feel stressed). The very same network is also associated with the part of our brain which controls movements,” explains Robinson.
When you have a history of injuries or musculoskeletal problems, perhaps associated with back pain (as we know, extremely common), it’s easy to think you need to avoid physical activity as much as possible. Experts are increasingly trying to highlight that, in fact, the opposite is true, and staying as regularly active as possible is actually vital in managing such problems. Of course, some people may need rest periods and you’ll still need to be sensible, but there’s good reason a lot of physiotherapists encourage patients to take up gentle Pilates. “Pilates sessions can really help manage back pain. At Boost Physio, we have special remedial Pilates sessions and classes for women suffering from back pain or recovering from injuries. We work with our clients on safely strengthening the core posture, deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor muscles that protect and support the spine. This is ideal for women recovering from back injuries or spine problems and regular Pilates sessions are fantastic for recovery, long term pain management and prevention”, says Laura Herman of Boost Physio.
Here are Body Control Pilates founder Lynne Robinson’s top positions and stretches for soothing stress…
“Lie on a mat on your back with knees bent, feet hip-width apart and parallel. Rest arms on your pelvis or by your sides. Check your pelvis is level (neutral) and your spine retains its natural curves. Take a few full breaths then breathe wide into the ribcage. Breathe out, and gently squeeze your back passage (as if trying to prevent passing wind!) and bring this feeling forward to your pubic bone. Then gently draw these muscles up inside like an internal zip. Breathe in and hold this ‘core’ zip. Breathe out and release. Next time, try adding several breaths as you hold the gentle internal zip. Breathe wide and full into the back and sides of your ribcage, before releasing. If you find it hard to breathe, you have zipped up too far! As a variation, try relaxing in this position to help release unwanted tension in the body. Feel your body supported by the mat, your head heavy, your ribcage anchored and spreading wider with each breath, your pelvis centred and your feet grounded. Become aware of the gentle rhythm of your breathing.”
“A free-flowing movement away from a stable centre. Start in the Relaxation Position with arms down by your sides, palms facing your body. Breathe wide into your lower ribcage to prepare. Breathe out and raise one arm back as if to touch the floor behind you. Remember you may not be able to touch the floor comfortably, so only move the arm as far as you’re happy to. At the same time, slide the opposite leg away along the floor in a line with your hips, keeping the pelvis stable. Breathe in and hold the stretch. Breathe out and return to the starting position. Repeat eight times, alternating arms and legs. Watch that the pelvis stays still and neutral when your leg slides out and back. Do not be tempted to over reach.”
“A great way to fully release tension in the upper body. Stand tall on the floor. Feet hip-width and parallel if comfortable. Bend your knees a little and keep them bent throughout. Breathe in as you lengthen the back of your neck and nod your head forwards. Breathe out as you continue to roll your spine forwards and down. Imagine you’re rolling over a large beach ball to create space between each bone, go smoothly. Roll until you can go no further without bending from the hips. Breathe in as you begin to roll your pelvis underneath you. Breathe out as you continue to roll your spine back up, restacking bone by bone. Lengthen your spine as you return back to upright. Repeat up to eight times.”