That one burns. (Photo credit: John Ranaudo)
I read an article last week that promoted the idea that everyone has a workout activity that works for them, that they might tolerate, if not learn to enjoy. It’s an idea that tries to explain why some people hate running, for example, and others see their bodies and lives transformed by the daily quickening of their gait. I agree completely that each body responds differently to varying activities, and I’m about to tell you why, but first let me say that I’ve been wanting to post about my experience with Pilates for awhile a now. Let me assure you that I’m a Pilates devotee all on my own. No one has paid me to write this post. Now settle in, because this is the (long) story about how Pilates changed my life.
Pilates changed my body
I come from a family of runners. Growing up I learned that jogging was not only good for the ticker but for the brain too. It was aerobic and therapeutic, and so for years, exercising equated to running for me.
A dislocated knee pushed me into swimming and water polo during high school, but after that, with less time and without easy access to a pool, I laced up my Sauconys again, despite my doctor’s recommendation to abstain from regular joint pounding.
All through the
freshman college twenty-five I ran. Sometimes up to 6 miles a day, sometimes down to two miles a month. (Hey, you try getting motivated to run in 25 degree weather!) During my running peaks, I felt my energy level even out. I slept better and felt healthy, but I barely noticed a change in my body. fifteen
After college when I had settled in Santa Barbara, I bought a Groupon for a month of The Bar Method classes. I knew little about the workout type, other than that it was based on Pilates, had a reputation for being a killer workout, and that a lot of dancers liked it. A dancer I am not, but I went anyway.
The first two weeks kicked my butt. Sore doesn’t begin to describe it. By month two I was still sore after class, but I recovered much quicker and had seen a big transformation in my waist line and leg definition.
And I got hooked. I moved from The Bar Method to The Dailey Method, which are very similar, because The Dailey Method was closer to my house and had a parking lot.
For over a year, I went pretty regularly to these Pilates-type classes, and for the first time in my life, I could hold plank for a minute and half no problem. And while I was pleased with the strength I had gained (and the weight I lost), the change in my body mechanics was an unexpected benefit. My posture had improved, and for the first time I felt my abs engaging to support my movements, everything from getting out of my car to bending to unload the dishwasher, and even as I danced at concerts.
While doing The Dailey Method classes I lost quite a bit of weight – about 15 pounds over the course of six months. I bring this up not to boast, but because I had never lost weight easily until I started Pilates. A strength training regimen changed my body and fast. While I probably should have, I didn’t change my diet as I started this new workout routine. I’ve always found it easier to add exercise to my life than to restrict calories. (Hi bagels and burritos.) So I was kind of shocked at the body change I experienced, which helps explain why I first fell in love with Pilates-based workouts when they changed my body, but soon after they changed my life in a different way.
Pilates as physical therapy
Over the course of my soiree with The Dailey Method, I still ran sometimes too. It was still engrained in me. But when my bad knee (the one I had dislocated 10 years earlier) started hurting on my runs, I toned it down a bit. When it started hurting during everyday activity, I made a doctor appointment. The short story goes like this: I was told two things by two different orthopedic surgeons. The slimy one said I had “poor knees by design” (thanks mom and dad) and that I needed surgery in both knees to reshape them. The qualified one recommended physical therapy.
At my consultation session, my physical therapist, Radhika, was borderline shocked at the weakness in my hamstrings and butt for someone who had done The Dailey Method for the last year. Turns out our bodies relearn how to move without compromising weak places, like my knees. I had all but forgotten that humans have hamstrings.
Radhika and I had the same alma matter and a shared interest in Pilates. She was studying for her Pilates teacher certificate in her free time and incorporated it into every part of her physical therapy workouts, so every Monday and Friday at 5 p.m. she had me on a Pilates reformer machine doing the exercises that, in class, I could never feel in the right spots — the ones my body had adapted in order to not compromise my weak spots. Physical therapy with Radhika was like going to a private Pilates reformer class.
Pilates reformers machines. (Photo credit: Ajrehman)
(Note: For those that aren’t familiar, like I was a few months ago, a reformer machine is a basically a flat carriage connected to springs that, when you lay on it, simulates the movements you do while standing up but with less weight than your body weight. They help you perfect your form at lower weight levels before moving to Pilates mat classes, which rely on your body weight for exercises. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, Pilates reformer classes are actually designed for newbies, and mat classes are for people who have the strength to do the exercises against their whole body weight.)
What I learned from Pilates-based PT was that there is a right way to move our bodies. Pilates is therapeutic because it’s based on doing fewer iterations of strength exercises but in near perfect form. Just a slight tuck of the pelvis or extension of the elbow and you’re targeting entirely different muscles.
So with Radhika’s help, my hamstrings shook and my butt burned until a few weeks later my knee pain had seriously subsided. Within a few more weeks, I went on my first run in eight months. It felt like a miracle, but I knew by then it was more just a matter of physics.
I teared up on my last day of physical therapy out of so much gratitude to the woman who had showed me that I could live the active lifestyle I loved without pain or worry. I transferred from physical therapy to group Pilates reformer classes in January and have enjoyed pain-free hiking (both urban and natural) since then. However, I can feel the difference (and a bit of pain) when I get lazy with my strength exercises.
Pain relief was my main pursuit in physical therapy, but I got a lot more out of it than that. Now that I know how to use my body properly, I feel less inclined to injury when I’m doing something new or challenging, like snowboarding or stand-up paddle boarding. I also love yoga and have seen a huge improvement in my practice since starting Pilates. And, at the least, my improved posture helps me feel taller if not look taller.
My point in a nutshell is that Pilates changed my body and my life. What I tried for a over a decade to get from running — improved fitness without pain — I got from Pilates in a few months. I think there is a physical activity of choice out there for everyone — one that’s enjoyable and that produces the best fitness results — but I also think that knowing how to use your body is the basis of enjoying physical activity over the course of a lifetime. And, the truth is that since most of us spend the majority of our time sitting behind screens, it’s not hard to imagine that we fall into bad muscular habits, ones that are hard to break without someone pointing them out to us. Pilates was my reset button for both weight loss and improved body mechanics. I’ve been in classes next to everyone from ballerinas to grandmothers to men who can’t their toes and women with back injuries, so no matter if you want it to be your dedicated workout or to help you improve your performance in other activities, I think everyone can benefit from a Pilates class.
A note about the high cost of Pilates
I’m a young professional who hasn’t won the lottery or designed the latest social network, so suffice to say that my exercise budget is by no means unlimited. But at $20-$30/class Pilates can feel like it’s catered to the one percent (and it might be). To make Pilates accessible for everyone, I have a few tips:
- Take advantage of the new student specials that almost every workout studio offers, and look for daily deals from places like Groupon and Living Social. You can often get the price per class down to something much more affordable. I’ve seen deals for $8/class! Also, I’ve moved studios just to take advantage of a new student special. Hey, a gal with a budget has to do what a gal with a budget has to do!
- Complement your in-studio classes with an at-home regimen (but learn the proper form from a professional first). My old roommate and childhood friend got hooked on The Dailey Method with me and for my birthday bought me The Dailey Method DVDthat has full and express workouts on it. I use this when I don’t have time or budget to get to the studio.
- If your healthcare covers physical therapy, find a physical therapist with a focus on Pilates technique and do a few sessions with a PT. It’s like having a private Pilates instructor for a fraction of the price.
Do you have a workout of choice? Have you ever tried Pilates? Do you disagree that Pilates is for everyone?