Pilates - once viewed as the domain of 'yummy mummies' and celebrity lifestyle glitterati, this hundred year old discipline is gaining momentum as being a hugely beneficial form of exercise - no matter your age or fitness level. With followers from tennis star Andy Murray, to silver grey writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell, Pilates is the buzzword on everyone's lips....but it has been around for years.
Originally known as 'Controlology', the system of body weight resistance exercise training was developed by Joseph H Pilates, and refined during his years as a prisoner of war.
The benefits of 'Controlology' was first seen within those PoW camps, where the prisoners in Pilate's block were healthier, and had less fatalities than those in other areas - something he attributed to keeping exercising, and building resistance training. After the war, Jospeh Pilates went to America, where he taught his new regime to hundreds of people, with many dancers being within the first group to recognise the benefits. His students went on to develop his process, leading to the Pilates method we now know today. Based around whole body movements, whilst targeting key muscle groups, Pilates utilises the key principles of concentration, control, centre, flow, precision and breathing. Co-ordinating the deep postural muscles and stability with movements of the arms and legs makes it an effective exercise protocol that is easily adaptable to minimise impact to the joints.
There can be no denying that for some people, the chronological ageing process can have a devastating effect on quality of life and independence, with the effects of sarcopenia (defined specifically as 'age-associated loss of skeletal muscle mass and function' by the International Working Group on Sarcopenia in 2009 (1)), reduced bone density and loss of balance control all being well documented in medical journals as something that happens to people. But there is a growing population bucking the trend, and showing that growing old doesn't have to automatically mean a loss of muscle and flexibility. Indeed, Joseph Pilates once said "If at the age of 30, you are still out of shape, you are old. If at the age of 60, you are supple and strong, you are still young.".
One of the barriers to sport at a silver grey level can be previous injuries, joint replacements, and pain, but Pilates shows that sport doesn't have to be high impact to be beneficial. A 2014 study by Campos de Oliveria et al (2) demonstrated a significant improvement in muscle strength in the lower limbs in older adults who undertook a Pilates routine compared to those who undertook a stretching routine. The benefit of muscle strength for any and every sport cannot be overstated, let alone for maintaining independence and the quality of life that we grow accustomed to as active individuals. Maintaining muscle mass is a vital part of being able to combat sarcopenia, and in turn reduce the risk of falls and other injuries. This can be done through any method that involves resistance training - whether it is weights or Pilates (1).
Balance is another area that has traditionally seen a decline as people age, and without intervention, can be one of the leading causes of frailty in older 'non-active' adults. It is also vitally important for all sports as, from running to kite surfing and everything in between, having poor balance means wasted energy that could be better converted into momentum and force generation. Several studies published within the last 10 years show a positive effect between commencing Pilates, or Pilates style exercise, and reduced risk of falls, and increased balance scores (3,4).
The benefits of any form of exercise - at all levels - cannot be overstated enough, but more than that, the benefit of including some form of resistance training can have effects that carry on giving, no matter your age. So, with a growing catalogue of anecdotes as to the benefits of Pilates for all levels of athletes, and a growing database of research into the benefits for postural balance, muscle strengthening and other health-related aspects of quality of life, it is hard to see Pilates fading into the background for those keen to stay 'supple and strong'.
“I have been going for 13 years… How do I measure the success of Pilates? Certainly, I emerge with a tremendous sense of well-being, and even if I do call at the coffee shop for a croissant afterwards, I still feel my health has been served. I remain active and relatively agile.”
– Joan Bakewell, writer and broadcaster, on the secret of her health and agility at the age of 70 – from an article in The Guardian
Hannah Neat is a MusculoSkeletal Physiotherapist and Pilates Instructor for Reactivate Healthcare at www.reactivatehealthcare.co.uk
1. Fielding RA, Vellas B, Evans WJ, et al. . Sarcopenia: an undiagnosed condition in older adults. Current consensus definition: prevalence, etiology, and consequences. International Working Group on Sarcopenia, J Am Med Dir Assoc , 2011, vol. 12 (pg. 249-56)
2. Campos de Oliveira, L; Conclaves de Oliveira, R; Aparecida de Almeida Pires-Oliveira, D, Effects of Pilates on muscle strength, postural balance and quality of life of older adults: a randomised, controlled, clinical trial. J. Phys. Ther. Sci. 27: 871-876, 2015
3. Kloubec, Pilates for Improvement of Muscle Endurance, Flexibility, Balance and Posture, Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - pp 661-667
4. Rachel W. Pata, Katrina Lord, Jamie Lamb, The effect of Pilates based exercise on mobility, postural stability, and balance in order to decrease fall risk in older adults, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Volume 18, Issue 3, 2014, Pages 361-367, ISSN 1360-8592.