Crooked spine? Get straight with Pilates

According to Joseph Pilates, if you have a flexible spine at 60 then you’re young, if you have a stiff and inflexible spine at 30 then your old. Based on this principle then, our actual age does not have to impact on how healthy or mobile we feel.

Jospeh Pilates was asthmatic, suffered from rheumatic fever and rickets and spent most of his life trying to get fitter, better and stronger.

He got stronger with age by taking charge of his spine, postural alignment and by strengthening his core abdominal muscles. He then devised a technique and range of exercises, commonly known as Pilates,  that enables anybody, no matter how inflexible you may think you are, to gain in strength and mobility.

Penny Little of Core Pilates, offers some tailored classes especially for older people, in which the focus tends to be on what we have come to believe are age related concerns:
  • bad backs
  • osteoporosis
  • arthritis
  • knee problem
  • head & neck
  • other issues relating to having done little stretching or moving - but these bodily ailments can strike, and be improved upon, at at any time. All we need is a little bit of focus and dedication.

"There's no need to think that if you're old you can't improve. Muscles, mobility and mind can all benefit from simple Pilates exercises," she said, adding that most people who attend a class over the years, usually finish feeling more flexible than when they began.

Crooked spine
If the spine is crooked, or has kinks in it like a garden hose,  it affects the whole body, including the nervous system, which can cause seemingly unrelated health concerns, such as digestive problems.

Got a back issue?
In Pilates the focus is on bringing core muscles into correct alignment. This aligns the spine so vertebra and hips are balanced. Penny said, "By strengthening core muscles, we switch on the very deep muscles either side of the spine which then stabilise the vertical column, taking pressure off the back - a bit like gently tightening a corset  around the middle which supports the spine".

But don't be put off by the corset analogy, it's really only to give you an idea of how straightening and the spine releases lower back pressure, where most problems arise. "When we sit or stand, our lower vertebra carry the extra weight and take the strain. By developing the core, a lifting effect occurs to remove excess weight and reduces pain."

Curve or hump back?
Penny points out that as people age they do tend to get pulled into a rounder position, or can develop scoliosis,  which when exaggerated can resemble a hump. To combat this consider head and neck alignment and examine the shoulders. "Pilates looks to correct this curvature by stretching through the front and strengthening the back. We do exercises that bring the head back into position, balance perfectly on the spine, and remove the extra weight to the spine and lower back which caused the curve.

Sarcopenia is the slow deterioration of  skeletal muscle and weakening of the human body over time. The onset of sarcopenia and the fear of falling is often more of a concern as we get older, "because when muscles start to age, our joints and bones become less dense, creating a tendency for falls," Penny said.

"If we're moving on a skeleton that has less bone density, and we fall, we quickly become incapacitated, more inflexible, less motivated and can suffer severe mood changes so it's really important to keep mobile as we get older to improve bone density which in turn protects our

Pilates for seniors
A typical class for seniors, which in Penny's class ranges from 55-70 years old although she has had an 80 year old join up, will  often involve using light weights in a comfortable position.

"To treat the range of ailments, most exercises are done on the floor, but can be done in a chair or standing if floor movement is prohibitive - equally for people with back problems, sitting in a chair can be uncomfortable", so classes cater for all needs and vary to suit each person.

And because there aren't any bendy things in leotards - just older people wearing tracksuit bottoms and a tee-shirt, Penny believes people feel less intimidated!

Listen to you own body's wisdom, don't push yourself, but do give Pilates a go if you're feeling immobile or inflexible. Seek out a teacher whose classes are small so you get the attention you need and make she/he has experience with your particular condition. Even doing Pilates breathing will afford your nervous system some time to relax - impacting on your whole health.

 For more info on curvature of the spine, visit BBC health