Pilates: Keep Older Adults Injury Free

by Rosalind Gray Davis on Apr 26, 2013

Pilates is a powerful tool for countering the aging process, but it must be taught and practiced safely. Here, three Pilates experts and educators share their experience and recommendations on how to work with mature clients: Lisa Graham owns Agile Monkey in Santa Cruz, California, and is a Balanced Body® faculty member; Rael Isacowitz, MA, is the founder and owner of Basi Pilates®; and PJ O’Clair owns clubXcel and Northeast Pilates, a STOTT PILATES® Licensed Training Center.

Biomechanics & Physiology

In addition to basic knowledge of anatomy, the most important requirements for teaching seniors include a solid understanding of biomechanics and physiology, says O’Clair. “If you are working with a mature client, it is important to know what happens during the aging process and how that can compromise the way the body moves and how the joints function. As people age, they lose mobility, owing to physiological changes.”

“There are tremendous variables when teaching the mature population: age, fitness level, lifestyle, body awareness,” to name a few, adds O’Clair. Instructors should start by evaluating a client’s needs and goals, she says. When working with a physically challenged client, O’Clair usually begins with simple exercises to mobilize the joints—such as shoulder shrugs and wrist circles—and then works to stabilize and strengthen the client. “Part of the process is to evaluate joint mobility. Can they turn their head, for example? Are they moving in all planes of motion? You can’t begin to strengthen or stabilize something that doesn’t move.”

According to Graham, “Biomechanics is about positioning the body and its orientation to gravity to allow for beneficial movement patterns and efficiency, with the least amount of stress, while also stabilizing the client’s range of motion.” Attempting abrupt changes can harm rather than benefit a client, she warns. “Our goal is to observe our clients while they are moving, to address their movement patterns and to be able to observe and correct alignment in a positive way. We want to make slow and appropriate changes for optimal biomechanics.”

Graham, who uses the mantra “Do no harm” when training clients, says older adults have often had bad postural habits for many years. “It takes longer to unwind them [compared with younger clients]. You can’t reverse 30 years of bad posture in one day. Trying to do that would be unsafe and inappropriate.”

On the other hand, Graham notes, many of the seniors she teaches are fit, healthy and vibrant—and ready for a challenge. “Pilates offers a method of communicating to people about their bodies, what they can do, what they should do and how to keep looking forward to the next challenge in a safe and appropriate way.”

Isacowitz, co-author of Pilates Anatomy (Human Kinetics 2011) with educator Karen Clippinger, MA, says instructors need to know a “triangle of information” about “the science of human movement, the person you are working with and the Pilates repertoire [which you need to know in depth].” He says familiarity with the nuances of each exercise and any inherent dangers are especially crucial when teaching seniors. “Lying supine doing footwork I would regard as a safe exercise.”

However, he says, chest expansion on the reformer can be difficult if a client is unfamiliar with the exercise and lacks good control. “Your center of gravity is high, you face the back of the reformer, and if a client releases the spring too quickly, the carriage can fly back, creating instability,” says Isacowitz. “The person can fall into the pit behind the carriage. It is like a carpet being swept from under you.”

For more ideas and guidelines from these experts, please see “Pilates Safety Concerns for Older Adults” in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fit Tips, Volume 11, Issue 5

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Rosalind Gray Davis

Rosalind Gray Davis IDEA Author/Presenter

Rosalind Gray Davis is a dynamic and creative author and highly regarded health, fitness and wellness industry expert, having published numerous articles in well known national periodicals. She penne...

2 Comments

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  • Barbara Bruni

    We have seen a surge of the senior population at our studio in Pensacola, Fl. They are a very dedicated group, indeed. Pilates is something they can do and feel good about it since many of them can no longer participate in the sports and other modes of exercise they were used to. Pilates, if done correctly with the proper modifications, is very safe for seniors. With the emphasis on alignment, spinal length and better breathing mechanics they feel and look better than they have in years. We work on their gait as well which changes their life! They are able to get around without the pain and strain in their joints. We have seen remarkable changes at our studio such as reversal of hyper kyphosis, increased bone mass and a regain of some of their lost height.
    Commented May 10, 2013
  • User

    Our studio has seen an increase in the senior population as well. Pilates is the perfect exercise, if done correctly with the appropriate modifications, for seniors. With the emphasis on alignment and spinal lengthening as well as improved breathing it is very safe and helps them to feel and look better. They are a very dedicated group as a whole. We have seen remarkable results at our studio such as reversing the hyper kyphotic spine, increased bone mass, and even regaining lost height! We also work with them on improving their gait which changes their entire well-being. They become able to live the life they were used to when they were younger.
    Commented May 10, 2013

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