7 Great Benefits of Pilates for Seniors
For the older population keeping fit is essential. But so many forms of exercise can be hard on the bodies of older adults. Many have turned to Pilates sessions at their local clubs as a way to stay in shape while reducing the risk of injury that weight-bearing exercises may cause. With its focus on controlled breathing and quality of movement-not quantity of repetitions-many experts agree that Pilates is one of the best ways for older adults to stay healthy.
“Pilates is perfect for older adults because it does not have the impact on the body that other forms of exercise do, and is not nearly as severe on the joints as most workouts are,” says Ellie Herman, owner of several Pilates studios, and a renowned Pilates instructor and author. “It really is a gentle way to exercise. If you’re an older adult and haven’t exercised in a while, Pilates is a safe way to restart a workout program.”
Most conventional workouts tend to build short, bulky muscles more prone to injury–especially in the body of an older adult. Pilates focuses on building a strong “core”–the deep abdominal muscles along with the muscles closest to the spine. Many of the exercises are performed in reclining or sitting positions, and most are low impact and partially weight-bearing. It also can positively affect postural positions.
“Pilates for older adults, particularly on a Reformer (resistance-based equipment with springs and ropes connected to a sliding padded carriage) is wonderful because it is a relatively light resistance as opposed to some gym equipment, where even the lightest weight on the rack might be too much for them,” says Beth Williams, a physical therapist at Dynamic Movement in Reno, Nevada.
- Increased Stability and Balance
Pilates centers on movements at the midrange of the body instead of the extremities (arms and legs), where, again, the potential for injury is greater. In contrast with other forms of exercise, Pilates develops the midrange and gradually works toward the endrange, while maintaining complete control around the joints. To the benefit of older adults, Pilates teaches control and stability in a small range of motion, graduating to a larger range of motion as they gain control and confidence.
Increased control and stability is crucial for older adults as it can help them improve much of their functional movement, including balance and posture. “As people get older, they can lose some of their balance and coordination. Pilates increases strength and flexibility in both the core and the legs, which positively affects balance. This, along with basic fitness benefits, can help them reduce the risk of falls,” says Herman. “And Pilates is also a good way for older adults to rehab from surgical procedures like a hip replacement or knee surgery.”
- An Antidote for Many Ailments
Pilates also helps with a variety of age-related ailments. Arthritis sufferers benefit because the gentle mid-range movements decrease the chance of joints compressing while maintaining the range of motion around them. For sufferers of osteoporosis or stenosis, Pilates can also help. For osteoporosis the simple and standing Pilates leg exercises may increase bone density in both the spine and the hip. For lumbar stenosis there are exercises that can stretch out tight back muscles and strengthen the extensor muscles of the spine to counteract the forces of gravity that can pull people into a hunched position. Be careful, however. Any type of flexion exercise, for example, is not good for someone with osteoporosis. Conversely, any type of extension may cause injury to someone with stenosis. If you have either of these conditions it is important that you make sure your Pilates instructor knows how to modify the exercises so that you do not hurt yourself.
Pilates has also been documented to slow or reverse the effects of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. The mid-range motion of the exercises can help people overcome rigidity and become more limber. It can even help with brain traumas like a stroke.
“The sooner people with brain damage or a stroke can start balance exercises with Pilates and get their bodies moving symmetrically, the better they will fare in their overall permanent outcome,” says Herman.
Most clubs now offer some type of Pilates program. If you are an older adult and are interested in Pilates, talk to the program director about what kind of Pilates class will best benefit you. Many clubs offer classes geared specifically for the older population. It is also a good idea to consult your doctor before you start a Pilates regimen.
Ken Endelman is Founder and CEO of Balanced Body Inc. Ken began his career as a designer and craftsman of fine custom furniture – a background apparent in every piece of hand-finished equipment the company makes. Since the early 1970s, Ken Endelman has updated Joseph Pilates’ equipment with state-of-the-art engineering, materials and technology, many of which have become industry standards. The company has been awarded twenty-four U.S. patents, with more pending. Balanced Body Inc. continues to actively promote Pilates to the fitness industry, the medical profession and the media. This article was originally seen in Beyond Fitness Magazine.
Many older adults find that their balance, flexibility and endurance have diminished over time. These conditions are workable within most beginner Pilates contexts, and they will improve as Pilates is practiced regularly. Seniors can be assured that it is the right and responsibility of any student to adjust participation in an exercise to a level that feels healthful and safe for them. Various exercise modifications are commonplace in Pilates classes. A good instructor will help a senior student monitor the level of exertion, and take measures to prevent over-stretching or falls. Seniors might be encouraged to know that the majority of beginner Pilates mat and reformer exercises are done lying down or sitting, so there is less risk of falling than there might be with some other forms of exercise.
Osteoporosis is a special concern for seniors in Pilates, as it is with many fitness systems. Osteoporosis is a weakening of the structure of the bone, which makes those who have it more susceptible to broken bones and fractures. Anyone at risk of osteoporosis, a category which does include seniors over 65 (both men and women), should get a bone density scan before proceeding with Pilates practice.
Weight bearing exercises, such as many Pilates exercises, are often recommended as part of bone building programs to prevent osteoporosis. However, once the condition is present in the bones, the fitness scenario changes considerably. The reason is that exceptional balance challenges, some weight bearing exercises, forward flexion (bending), and certain twisting exercises — all part of regular Pilates practice — are not recommended for people with osteoporosis. Does that mean they can’t do Pilates? No. It does mean, however, that the workout has to be designed keeping osteoporosis in mind and should be lead by a qualified Pilates instructor.
Modified Pilates’ exercise is an ideal approach for a more senior client as it addresses the important issues regarding the changes in the body that come with age. Additional benefits include performing daily tasks with ease to improve quality of life and confidence.
4. Improved posture, joint stability and mobility
As we grow older our posture changes; we become more rounded and in most extreme cases a person may become stooped. Rounded posture will change the shape of the spine compressing the joints and may cause impingement at the shoulder joint resulting in problems when lifting the arms. Reaching up for items in cupboards becomes harder and may lead to falls. Most falls are as a result of reaching up. Pilates’ exercises will address these issues by improving posture and shoulder mobility.
5. Improved breathing and circulation
As we become more rounded with age, breathing will become more laboured. Muscles responsible for breathing become weak and the ribs become stiff. The result will be a lack of oxygen in the blood circulating around the body which can contribute to dizziness and even confusion. The specific Pilates’ breathing technique lengthens the tight ribcage and strengthens the muscles responsible for breathing resulting in a more efficient respiratory system.
6. Improved balance and body awareness
Falls are common among older adults and often lead to injury. Walking is a basic requirement for mobility and older people may lose their confidence if they have experienced a fall due to loss of balance or control. We rely on our senses to stand still and move; these senses deteriorate as we become older affecting our balance and mobility. Many falls are preventable and Pilates may help to reduce them by improving balance and co-ordination.
7. Improved strength and flexibility
With age, muscular strength decreases especially in the lower body and between the ages of 30-50 muscle strength has been shown to reduce as much as 30%. Physical inactivity will contribute to muscle loss which, in turn, leads to decreased muscular endurance resulting in early fatigue and an increased risk of falling. Loss of muscle power affects the older adult’s ability to walk, climb stairs and lift themselves out of a chair. Flexibility also deteriorates with age. Pilates’ exercises will address these issues and improve the body’s muscular balance.