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#IWD International Women’s Day Exercise series: Pilates

03 March, 2018

Paul McCartney (circa 1969) and the Beatles on the cover of my Abbey Road album.

Paul McCartney at 75 years of age still beltin’ out a tune

Photo Courtesy of Marika Hart, Perth 2017

Start moving, keep moving, stay moving!

Make it your mantra for 2018. (Yes I know it’s March not January but who says there’s a rule about when you make your New Year’s resolutions?)

Evidence is strong that physical inactivity not only increases your risk of a cardiovascular event, increases your risk of osteoporosis and increases the chance of excessive weight gain (particularly around the middle leading to conditions such as metabolic syndrome), but can also significantly lower your emotional and mental health well-being.

But who needs evidence in the literature when you have photographic evidence of the amazing Paul McCartney pictured above. Here’s a man who has danced, jumped, strummed and swished his way around a stage for 60 years (including his gigs which started when he was just 15 when he met John Lennon at a church fete) and he looks (and sounds) absolutely amazing for any age – let alone 75. That’s all due to remaining physically active.

I really wish I could have my thirties and forties back again- not because I’m worried about which decade I’m heading towards (hurtling towards) but because I wish I could relive it – adding a lot more physical exercise. Those decades were wonderful as we were child-rearing, but I just didn’t place enough emphasis on exercise then. I was always trying to squeeze in work with a life which was crammed full of wonderful busyness with the kids and I didn’t think to prioritize my own exercise. (I wish I had known then what I know now – thank you internet).

When I turned 50 the kids were older and I started to walk more regularly and I became exquisitely aware as I approached menopause that changes were afoot! The feet became achey, the shoulders became ‘ouchy’ and the middle waist area became sloppy. Fortunately I increased the exercise (instead of sitting around more thinking rest would help the pain as many of us do) and suddenly the feet were pain-free, the shoulders got stronger (I had added some weights in at the gym) and the waist started to decrease a bit. (That’s not to say that I didn’t have two episodes of extreme foot pain with plantar fasciitis in the last decade which have resolved thankfully).

Proof that the answer to (almost) every question about your health is exercise!

So I have decided to ask each of my physios and Studio194 instructors to write a blog on some facet of exercise that is in their personal life or their working life. Today we start with Megan Bergman one of my pelvic health physios at my rooms and also one of my Pilates instructors. Megan’s blog on Pilates follows below.

Many people believe that doing Pilates is just about getting a stronger core, but it can give you so much more than that.

Movement is created first in the brain where the brain activates a specific pattern of nerve firing that co-ordinates the contraction and relaxation of the muscles required to execute the movement. Whilst doing this, the brain is also constantly monitoring the feedback from the muscles, joints and ligaments and other soft tissue to help ‘fine tune’ the movement. If you took a step and the muscles at the front of your thigh contracted too strongly and unchecked, your leg would swing forward into the air. If your lower leg muscles didn’t activate you’ll catch your toe on the ground.

Fortunately our brain is so clever that with practice repeated movements become more efficient, precise and easy. (Just like a baby learning to walk). So if we are to move well, the training must start in the brain. As Julie Wiebe PT writes “your brain is stronger than any of your muscles. It’s not if one particular muscle is strong or weak. It’s about brain work first, body work second.”

How does Pilates fit into this?

When doing our Pilates exercises you are often given a number of cues, such as when to breathe in or out, or when to lift your pelvic floor. Many people initially find this confusing, trying to move, and breathe and use good form, but there is a reason the exercise is taught in this way. Our aim is to train the timing, coordination and recruitment of the whole body to create beautiful movement. Beautiful movement is easy, flowing movement that uses only the necessary muscles, and doesn’t over-recruit unnecessary muscles. This can be a common problem for example in neck muscles in people who struggle with ongoing tightness or neck issues.

As already mentioned, it is the brain that sends the command to the muscles, and is responsible for coordinating the timing, sequence and force of each muscle’s activation. By tuning into the movement and how your body feels, we bring the brain’s attention to how it is moving and facilitate continuing improvement. With training and focus, we are training the brain to optimise each command. Yes, that’s right, training the brain. When looking at issues with the body, it is never just one muscle that is too strong, or too weak.  We’ve all tried endless stretching on tight muscles, and they just seem to tighten up again.We need to look at the brain’s strategy.Why is it tightening up that specific muscle? Why is the wrong strategy being utilised? 

So in the class you are prompted to breathe, activate the appropriate muscles and create movement. Similarly you are cued to check for unnecessary tightness or poor positioning. As I mentioned above this can be overwhelming so the goal is to start slowly. Focus on one thing, maybe the breathing in and out. As you get the hang of it you can incorporate more commands and more awareness.

Then to progress the movement, it becomes more complicated. We add another element, maybe some weight, or another limb moving. Our class participants move from learning how to effectively contract the pelvic floor in sitting, to contracting it while squatting, to contracting it while squatting with weight.  Our focus is on training how to exercise in a pelvic floor friendly manner.We need to make sure that the pelvic floor is lifting when the organs need support, and relaxing when it isn’t needed, so we always add an element of relaxing the pelvic floor, learning to switch it off. (You pelvic floor is not meant to work 24/7).

So when starting Pilates it may seem like a mental exercise at first.With good foundations, you can move onto many complex movements that challenge you, and make your body feel great.

Thanks Megan and I know my plan is to be stronger and fitter at 75 than I was at 35. Sir Paul McCartney you are inspirational.

#startmoving #keepmoving #staymoving 

Our Pilates classes: Megan takes our 6.30am Tuesday and Friday Pilates classes and conducts one-on-ones at Studio194 . Alexandra takes one-on-ones on Monday morning and Pilates on Tuesday 9.15am onwards; Martine takes a Pilates relaxation class on Monday night at 6.15pm) and Alison takes a Pilates Barre class on Friday at 9am. 

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