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.