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Is Pilates Good Exercise for Seniors?

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Updated June 18, 2014

A group of elderly people exercising together on balance balls
Abel Mitja Varela/Vetta/Getty Images
Question: Is Pilates Good Exercise for Seniors?
Answer:

The short answer is yes, Pilates is generally appropriate for senior fitness, and it is gaining popularity among senior citizens. The ability to modify exercises to meet differing needs, along with the many benefits of the Pilates method, such as increased levels of strength, balance, flexibility, muscle tone, stamina, and well being, make Pilates an inviting senior exercise program. After all, Joseph Pilates practiced his method into his eighties.

What is Pilates?
Pilates Information for Beginners

Classes for Seniors

It is possible to learn Pilates from online instruction, videos, and books. However, I recommend starting out in a group or private class with a certified Pilates instructor.

As Pilates becomes an integral part of the fitness world, Pilates classes specifically for seniors are becoming more common. They can be found at senior centers, Pilates studios, gyms and YMCAs. If an age-specific class is not available, many seniors will find that regular beginner classes are welcoming and level appropriate. A good instructor will offer cues for exercise modifications, and most classes are small enough that some individual instruction can be expected.

Another option for the senior student is to begin with private classes. Private instruction is offered at most Pilates studios. This will insure a good foundation in the basic movement principles of Pilates, and make it easier for an instructor to tailor modifications to a students needs.

Top Ways to Learn Pilates
8 Tips for Choosing Your Teacher

Mat or Reformer Classes?

Mat and reformer are the two most common types of Pilates classes that people begin with. Either one will be beneficial for the senior student. A Pilates mat class is comprised of exercises done on a mat on the floor, without any special equipment. However, smaller pieces of Pilates equipment, such as the magic circle or exercise band, may be incorporated into a mat class. Mat classes offer the benefit of teaching exercises that can easily be practiced at home.

The Pilates reformer, sometimes known as a Pilates machine, is a large piece of exercise equipment. A combination of springs set at different tensions, and a student's own body weight, create resistance during the exercises. The resistance that the reformer provides adds a weight bearing component to the reformer workout, beyond what the mat exercises offer.

Preparing for Your First Pilates Class
Anatomy of a Reformer
Before You Buy a Pilates Mat

Special Considerations for Seniors

Before beginning a Pilates class, the senior student would be well advised to check in with his or her health care professional. Many physical conditions can be accommodated in a Pilates setting, but it is important to know if any specific risk factors are present. It is essential to communicate health issues or physical limitations to the instructor before the class begins.

Many older adults find that their balance, flexibility and endurance have diminished over time. These conditions are workable within most beginner Pilates contexts, and they will improve as Pilates is practiced regularly. Seniors can be assured that it is the right and responsibility of any student to adjust participation in an exercise to a level that feels healthful and safe for them. Various exercise modifications are commonplace in Pilates classes. A good instructor will help a senior student monitor the level of exertion, and take measures to prevent over-stretching or falls. Seniors might be encouraged to know that the majority of beginner Pilates mat and reformer exercises are done lying down or sitting, so there is less risk of falling than there might be with some other forms of exercise.

Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a special concern for seniors in Pilates, as it is with many fitness systems. Osteoporosis is a weakening of the structure of the bone, which makes those who have it more susceptible to broken bones and fractures. Anyone at risk of osteoporosis, a category which does include seniors over 65 (both men and women), should get a bone density scan before proceeding with Pilates practice.

Weight bearing exercises, such as many Pilates exercises, are often recommended as part of bone building programs to prevent osteoporosis. However, once the condition is present in the bones, the fitness scenario changes considerably. The reason is that exceptional balance challenges, some weight bearing exercises, forward flexion (bending), and certain twisting exercises -- all part of regular Pilates practice -- are not recommended for people with osteoporosis. Does that mean they can't do Pilates? No. It does mean, however, that the workout has to be designed keeping osteoporosis in mind and should be lead by a qualified Pilates instructor.

Pilates and Exercise for Osteoporosis
Exercise Prevents Osteoporosis
DVD Review: Pilates for Buff Bones
Video: Pilates for Seniors - The Osteoporosis Workout

The outlook for seniors in Pilates is good. Pilates is growing, as is the number of seniors interested in it. This will increase demand for senior instruction, and more books, videos and support systems for seniors should follow.

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