These simple Pilates exercises are low intensity, low impact and inclusive, working to improve your back health and build pelvic floor strength
Pilates is nearly a hundred years old, with origins rooted in healing and rehabilitation. It was invented by Joseph Pilates initially to help fellow inmates develop muscle strength at an internment camp on the Isle of Man, but now it is practised in gyms and boutique studios around the world, including at East of Eden in Walthamstow.
Like yoga, it is a mind body practise, matching breath to movement, but in yoga, you use the breath to connect the mind and body to a higher consciousness. The mind-body connection in Pilates is more functional—using the breath to focus the mind on the present moment and connect with your body. A work-out rather than a work-in, as in yoga.
"If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young"
The practice of Pilates is low intensity, low impact and inclusive. It’s focused on spinal alignment and the tiny muscles that support your musculoskeletal system. A lifetime of poor posture—hunching over your computer or phone, carrying children and heavy bags on one side—can lead the muscles in your back to become weak and strained, leading to joint and disc issues.
Pilates concentrates on strengthening the deep postural muscles, raising awareness of how one stands and the general alignment of hips, spine and head. This awareness alone can go a long way to improving posture, but the strength built with highly targeted, specific exercises will support the spinal column, in effect future-proofing your body. As Joseph Pilates himself says: "If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young."
Who should do Pilates?
Pilates exercises can be done very simply in a chair, on a mat, or using a range of equipment, from the wunda chair and barrel, through to a reformer machine or a cadillac. Anyone can do the exercises and benefit from them, whatever their age or level of physical fitness. However, if you have any injuries or postural issues, or you are post natal, please always seek advice from a qualified Pilates teacher, and ensure you have the sign off from your health professional before starting. Similarly in pregnancy, please always go to a pre-natal trained teacher, as there are exercises that are not suitable in pregnancy.
You can start with a mat or chair and some free YouTube sessions at home, or head to one of the many studios offering Pilates across the UK, such as East of Eden. One of the most popular group Pilates classes is offered on a piece of equipment called the reformer. Over the last 15 years or so, the reformer, a machine comprising platforms and springs and pulleys, has become the go to for boutique studios across the world offering group classes to feel the burn. I bet Joseph Pilates would never have predicted how the form of exercise he first named Contrology would have become such a household name!
Pilates can be as hard or easy as you want it, and once you have mastered the basic principles and started building strength and endurance, there are some really challenging workouts to have fun with.
Home Pilates workout
Exercises for back health
The first move is a glute bridge. This strengthens your bum and stretches your lower spine all at once. Think of your spine as a pearl necklace: you must pick your spine up, bone by bone, by curling your pelvis and pressing up with your bum until your body is in a straight line at the top. Then melt back down, ribcage first, still squeezing your glutes until you have landed your pelvis. These are great to do just after waking up, when your spine is still relaxed and malleable.
Second, try the hip twist. Lay flat on the floor with your arms out wide, palms down. Stabilise your core and bring your legs into table top. Keep your back as flat as you can and twist your hips up and over to one side, then up and over to the other side, keeping your knees together.
Thoracic lifts are good for building upper and middle back strength and go a long way to reversing the damage modern life extols. Lay on the floor face down, with one hand on top of the other and your forehead on your hands. With your feet together, stretch your head away from your feet and come into a low hover as you inhale. Exhale to lower back down. Try to slide your shoulder blades down to your back pockets and open your collarbones as you lift to engage as many muscles as you can and support your lumbar spine.
Exercises for pelvic floor strength
Many women will have heard about the importance of keeping their pelvic floor strong but perhaps questioned why. It is normal as part of the ageing process for the pelvic floor muscles to “relax” but as these muscles are responsible for the stabilisation of the pelvis and its organs it’s important to keep the area strong in order to maintain control over the bladder, bowels and, in women, uterus. Reduced pelvic floor strength can lead to a number of different issues including incontinence, lower back pain and reduced sexual pleasure. There are many fantastic pelvic specialists so if you would like to know more or think you may have any issues do consult a physio first.
"It’s important to keep the pelvic floor strong in order to maintain control over the bladder, bowels and, in women, uterus"
There are a number of different ways to engage your pelvic floor. A simple yet effective way is a Pilates exercise known as toe taps. Lying on your back, take a deep inhale breath and on the exhale gently draw one leg at a time to a table top position (90 degree angle) focusing on engaging your pelvic floor and puling your belly button towards your spine. Repeat 10 times for each leg.
Bone density and low impact exercise
We all know exercise is good for us but it can be hard to motivate yourself to do a gruelling HIIT workout at the end of a long day at work. Regular low impact workouts such as barre and Pilates have been proven to be very effective in the improvement of cardiovascular health and therefore help maintain a healthy metabolism. Low impact workouts allow the joints to remain safe and stable (which is incredibly important as the body ages) while still working on muscular and endurance and increasing the heart rate.
"Low impact workouts allow the joints to remain safe and stable"
Low impact workouts are especially beneficial for increasing bone density which is vital in preventing osteoporosis. Static lunges are my favourite way to get a quick fix workout in; lunges require you to focus on the alignment of the shoulders, engaging your abdominal wall and strengthening your quadriceps and glutes.
Abby McLachlan is the founder of Pilates studio East of Eden
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