“We are as old as our spines”
– Joseph Pilates
A recent EU study by The Work Foundation[i] discovered that musculoskeletal disorders such as back and neck pain account for almost half (49%) of all sick leave and 60% of permanent work leave in the European Union costing a staggering 240 billion Euros. These figures do not touch on the additional millions of people suffering from similar disorders not deemed serious enough to warrant treatment and time off work.
It doesn’t take an expert to realize that the toll these injuries take is widespread, clearly affecting the life and work productivity of the individual and also their families and co-workers. Governments could save millions in healthcare budgets with targeted prevention schemes thereby helping improve the wellbeing of the worker whilst reducing unnecessary treatment costs.
HOW YOU WORK
o Ensure you are looking directly at your computer screen, at natural eye height, not at an angle.
o The seat should be low enough to allow both feet to sit on the floor but high enough to enable elbows to rest on the desk at 90°.
o If on the phone a lot, use a headpiece to avoid getting “phone neck”, i.e. wedging the phone between your cheek and your shoulder.
o Chair should be upright enough to enable proper back support.
o Get up and move around as much as possible. Ideally every 10-15 minutes to stretch your legs and your spine.
o Be aware of the areas you are susceptible to stiffness or discomfort. Shake, stretch them out & try to avoid sitting hunched in one position for any length of time.
o Do not be lulled into believing that sitting on a fitball will prevent backache. Yes, it is active sitting because it is unstable and therefore mobile, however, you can still slouch on a ball.
Pilates is a highly effective, pro-active means of reducing musculoskeletal issues because it involves strengthening the smaller postural muscles that support the spine. If pain is experienced in the lower back, you can pretty much guarantee there are postural issues throughout the mid, upper back and neck areas too. Pilates works on re-awakening the smaller, background muscles; the endurance ones that are vital to good, pain free posture. They quite literally hold us upright.
Born in Germany in 1880, Joseph Pilates was a sickly child who became determined to overcome his health issues and with a “can do” attitude became a proficient skier and gymnast by the tender age of 14. In 1912 he went over to Great Britain where he learnt boxing, circus performance and began to teach self-defense. World War I broke out and he, along with many other Germans, was interned and, when he found himself on the Isle of Man working as a hospital orderly, helped rehabilitate the patients through resistance exercise using equipment fashioned from bedsprings, amongst other things. This was the genesis of the reformer bed we know and love today.
Returning to Germany he continued pioneering a unique approach to fitness. This came to the attention of the government who insisted he train the new German army. His response was to immigrate to America where he established the Pilates Studio in New York City with his wife, Clara.
The Pilates method he created consisted of more than 500 mind-body movements and exercises designed to develop strong, flexible muscles without adding bulk. An emphasis on breathing and torso strength ensured improved posture, reduced stress and risk of injury.
Joseph Pilates worked extensively with the New York City Ballet. Other early devotees of his method include such dancing greats as George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Nowadays, followers include dancers, elite athletes, physiotherapists, fitness trainers, health care professionals and those interested in optimal health and fitness.
PILATES HOW TO
As with yoga, there are a plethora of styles of Pilates out there now. Each instructor or physiotherapist will have his or her own way of teaching an exercise or class. Following are some tips on the different options available.
One on one Pilates offered by either a physiotherapist or qualified Pilates instructor. If you have an injury such as a herniated disc or serious back pain or a shoulder, hip or neck problem this would be the smart move. One on one individualized sessions will help restore strength, movement and flexibility to the stressed areas and help relieve painful symptoms. This is a more costly approach but an important one for those with more serious physical or postural problems because you are proactively working on the issue to ensure it doesn’t return. Once you are pain free and have some experience it would be highly beneficial to add in a mat or reformer class to keep your practice up to speed and prevent recurrences.
Sessions can be one on one, small groups or, in some fitness facilities, large classes. Ideally aim for a smaller class so that the teacher can give more individual attention to the participants by adjusting and modifying exercises accordingly. This is a good introduction to the practice of Pilates and will allow you to learn the basic principles and repertoire. Often props such as therabands, small balls and blocks are sometimes used to vary and adapt exercises.
Where mat Pilates is performed on terra firma, use of the reformer bed takes the practice off in a completely different direction. Appropriate for beginners through to advanced practitioners, you will understand instantly where your strengths and weakness’ are and whether you really do (or don’t) have a strong core. Due to the high cost of the beds, these classes are usually found at specific Pilates or physio studios as well as a few gyms. If classes are offered at your gym you may well have to pay an additional cost for a course of sessions.
WHAT TO EXPECT
I always like to say that Pilates is easy to do but hard to do well. For the main part the repetitions are kept to a minimum (6-8) apart from the warm up exercise aptly named “100s”, with the idea being that instead of pushing out endless half-baked reps, you perform a few with the best technique possible. The setup to each movement is as important as the exercise itself with the focus being on engaging the pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles prior to moving. This helps connect your brain to the muscles you wish to turn on in order to strengthen them so that they re-learn how to do their job of supporting your spine and drawing your waist in (yeah, baby!). Generally they tend to be weak through years of underuse and poor postural habits.
Pilates also involves very specific breathing patterns for a number of reasons. Firstly, slowing down and paying attention to your breathing promotes relaxation and focuses the mind. It oxygenates the blood encourages the firing of the deep abdominals (hello skinny waist!).
That said, it is important to note that Pilates isn’t just about the abs. Yes, they are a key part of the puzzle but remember that the our core runs from tail to neck and from shoulder to hip and, as such, equal attention must also be paid to the placement of our shoulders, neck and hips and the muscles surrounding all our joints. The aim is to maintain optimal functional movement and flexibility throughout the body as a whole.
As with any new skill, be prepared for it all to be imperfect, messy and a somewhat confusing process initially. Be patient and remind yourself that it is a practice, ie it is not necessarily about reaching a particular level of difficulty but more about tuning in to how your body is feeling at this time on this day and seeing where you can take things. In so doing you will hopefully learn to listen to what your mind is saying and try to switch off from the white noise inside and instead tap into particular muscles and movements and realize that by focusing intently and specifically you become able to strengthen for example, your deep abdominals whilst allowing your neck and back to relax. A useful skill to learn if you suffer from backache, n’est-ce pas?
So if you haven’t ever tried Pilates or maybe you have but didn’t take to it, now might be the time to give it a go. It can be gentle and specific or challenging and dynamic and, as such, can form the mainstay of your exercise regime or be a complementary activity to your other pursuits. It can bring you back from injury and prevent you from going there again. Sold?!
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Photo credits: Das Wortgewan, Rita T, Open Clipart Vectors, Bykst, Michael Dunn, Saundi Wilson, Bella 67, Pexels