When I first started Pilates, I was hoping to find an exercise system that could alleviate the shoulder and back pain I was suffering from. As I was spending many hours every day sitting at the desk in front of the computer, always in the same position and always holding my shoulders up when typing, all my muscles and nerves in that part of the body seemed to be permanently stressed.
You could say, I was a good example of what Joseph Pilates would have called a victim of ‘modern life-style, bad posture and inefficient breathing’ – and that over 100 years ago. So I had high hopes to sort out my shoulder and back problems doing Pilates exercises. However, I didn’t expect and didn’t even spend a thought on the possible side effects of Pilates.
Well, to be honest, when you are constantly in pain and can’t sleep properly because there is no comfortable position you could lie in, you only think of how to get rid of the pain. So, you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when not only the pain eased off – and that only a few weeks of exercising regularly – but my whole body and mind seemed to be changing slowly. And that change was for the better.
So what changes were happening?
More energy, better sleep
One of the important changes that went along with the pain reduction was much better sleep. Unlike before, I didn’t spend hours lying awake in bed trying to find a comfortable position. Now, I could lie on my back again or on my side and shoulder without being aggravated by pain. And also, I often managed to sleep through again, something I hadn’t been able to for a long time.
The other thing I noticed was that during the day I felt quite energized and more positive about my life in general. Of course, this partly had to do with the fact that I wasn’t permanently exhausted due to lack of sleep.
However, the fact that I felt particularly well right after a Pilates workout showed me that there was more to it than just having enough sleep.
According to Joseph Pilates, applying his exercise system not only improves the blood circulation as the blood is loaded with oxygen during deep breathing, but also the circulation of fluids in the body thus helping the body to detoxify. The effect is a detoxified body and a brain supplied with oxygen-rich blood. So the brain feels more alert, happy and calm while the body feels energized and more resilient.
Improved posture, better alignment
We all have bad habits and we know we have. Some of these bad habits might be almost as old as we are. Others may have developed over the years. And that was true for mine as well. For example, I never stood straight when waiting somewhere and usually rested most of my body weight on one leg. Or I was often slouching over the desk and computer when working. Another of these bad habits was carrying heavy bags or heavy items on one side only – and carrying my daughter around on one side when she was little.
Although I was aware of these bad habits and I knew quite well that I shouldn’t slouch, have all my weight on one leg or carry things on one side only, I just couldn’t change these habits. It takes a lot of body awareness to change things like that. And this is where Pilates helps.
One of the principles of Pilates is being in full control of your movements and your body during exercises. To control your movements you need to concentrate and perform each movement consciously. This means both body and mind have to work together while they are trained or re-trained to perform a particular movement. They learn to tense certain muscle groups only and to relax those that are not required.
All of this is supported by controlled deep breathing helping the mind concentrate on the movement. It is a process of training/re-training that teaches the body to use the appropriate muscle groups for each movement.
The result of this is balanced muscles, which in return leads to better alignment and ultimately to a better posture. For me, this means no more slouching – well, at least only rarely – standing upright on both legs while waiting, and making sure I balance out any weight I need to carry. And this feels natural to me now as my muscles are more balanced and consequently, my body is better aligned.
More flexibility, less stiffness
As you get older, you tend to accept, or even expect, to be less flexible and a bit stiffer than during your younger years. And so did I. I was convinced that not being able to bend right down to the floor with straight legs or not being able to lift your leg up high was something you had to put up with.
So I was really surprised one day when I went to a fitness fair with my sporty teen-aged niece to find out in an experiment that I was much more flexible than she was. That surely couldn’t be right. But it was. I could bend my back much more than she could. What a revelation!
So there was another side effect of Pilates, and this is easily explained. As Pilates workouts concentrate on slow deliberate stretching and on targeting individual muscle groups, every muscle group is being worked and stretched. This is also true for the smaller ones that are usually ignored resulting in weakness and stiffness. And this systematical stretching of each individual muscle group is responsible for greatly increasing your flexibility.
I have to say, with my regained flexibility, I feel quite rejuvenated now. It’s so uplifting to see that you can be as flexible – or even more flexible – than a fit teenager.
Toned body, less body fat
Before starting Pilates, I had the preconception that this was more of a physiotherapy program than a fitness regimen. After all, this was often recommended by physiotherapists to help eliminate back pain. But I quickly realized that I was completely wrong. It can be both. It can be a very effective type of physiotherapy program as well as a fitness regimen toning your whole body. And this is how I first found out.
I had started doing Pilates sometime in March when it was cold and you needed long-sleeved tops to keep warm. Second half of April, however, it started to warm up. So I started to wear short-sleeved tops. One day, I was meeting up with a friend and, out of the blue, she was remarking on my firm upper arms – I used to have ‘bingo wings’, quite wobbly arms, so must have been quite noticeable. Later, I checked the rest of my body.
In fact, it was not just my arms that were more toned. My stomach, legs and buttocks looked much firmer as well. This is because my Pilates workouts involved the whole body and all muscle group rather than just a few like weight lifting exercises. So the whole body got toned as some sort of side effect. Also, it seemed that I had lost body fat since my stomach and other areas were much firmer.
While you can’t simply replace body fat with muscles without burning the fat first, it looked as if body fat had made way to muscles. One explanation is that instead of snacking a lot during breaks, I had started to do a couple of Pilates exercises instead. So these ‘mini-workouts’ helped in two ways: they made me burn fat and helped me build muscles. A real win-win situation.
Total body solution
Whatever your reasons are to start Pilates, whether you want to tackle back, shoulder and neck issues, improve your posture and body alignment, gain more flexibility and mobility, strengthen your core, work your muscles for a toned body or just have a workout for a more relaxed and energized mind – you’ll get it all.
In fact, you may even get more than that as the side effects of Pilates are numerous and apply to both body and mind. And it is one of the few exercise systems that is beneficial to almost anybody. So quite a universal solution that can be tailored to fit each individual’s need.
For me, starting Pilates was one of the best decisions in my life, and it’s not just an exercise regimen, but a life-style choice in itself.