Pilates-Inspired Routine for Travelers

by Laurie Leiber, MPH on May 28, 2008

Ex Rx

Help your clients by providing them with special exercises to use on vacation.

Pilates instructors everywhere will soon say goodbye to many of their best clients for all or part of the summer. Peak travel months can be quiet ones for Pilates studios because many of the people who can afford private Pilates instruction can also afford to explore the world. How you prepare for this inevitable summer exodus has implications both for the well-being of your clients and for the health of your practice. While clients are away, you want them to retain the strength and tone they’ve worked so hard to build. When they come home from their adventures, you want them to return to your practice.

Learn why it’s so important for clients to continue Pilates when they’re traveling and what special exercises you can recommend for them en route and at their destination.

Travel Is Rough on Bodies

Taking a trip has the potential to create several distinct physical challenges for your clients. Simply getting to a vacation destination—whether by plane, train, bus or car—often involves extended periods of immobility.

While the incidence of travelers developing dangerous blood clots, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT), is still relatively rare, the risk doubles after sitting immobile in a plane, train, bus or automobile for 4 hours or more (WHO 2007). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that travelers stay hydrated, wear loose-fitting clothing and make an effort to walk and stretch their legs and arms at regular intervals to prevent DVT (CDC 2007). While only 1 in 6,000 people experience travel-related DVT (WHO 2007), hours of inactivity associated with air travel—first in the airport waiting lounge and then on the plane—leave many travelers achy and sore before their vacations have even begun.

On a recent trip, I took a 2-hour bus ride to the airport, arriving 4 hours before departure for a 5-hour flight. With my history of neck and back problems, I feared a major flare-up if I simply sat motionless in the boarding lounge before belting myself into an airplane seat for several more hours. I started experimenting with Pilates-based exercises that I could perform right there, either standing or sitting. By the time I boarded the plane, I had field-tested 12 moves (see the sidebar “Pilates for Travelers”).

The physical challenges do not necessarily end for your clients when they arrive at their destination. They may pursue vacation activities—such as hiking, bicycling, sailing or horseback riding—that place unusual stresses on muscles and joints, and maintaining their exercise routine away from home may prove difficult to impossible.

Anticipating the exercise needs of your traveling clients will help them enjoy their vacations and stay in shape. It will also reinforce the positive, supportive relationship that will bring them back to your studio at summer’s end.

Seated Exercises

What can your clients do when they are virtually held captive in boarding lounges at the airport? They can perform these seven exercises that all begin with the following sustainable seated posture:

  • Place feet flat on floor, parallel, a few inches apart.
  • Sit up on sit bones.
  • Tip pelvis to bring it vertical (neutral spine position).
  • Drop shoulders away from ears and lengthen back of neck.
  • Breathe in, and on exhalation, draw in abdominals, engaging the core.

Figure-Four Stretch. Place one ankle on top of opposite knee. Hinge forward at hips, keeping spine neutral. Hold for 15–30 seconds, feeling a deep stretch on outside of hip. Repeat on other side.

Seated Twist (Not for People With Disk Problems). Keeping knees and hips facing front, reach around to one side with both hands and hold onto back of chair. Breathe in. On exhalation, rotate rib cage and look over back of chair while keeping as much length in spine as possible. Hold stretch for 10–15 seconds. Return to start position and repeat, twisting to other side.

Shoulder Shrug and Roll. Inhale as you lift shoulders up toward ears. Exhale as you roll shoulders back and down, opening chest and letting shoulder blades come together. Continue sliding shoulders down the back, away from ears. Repeat 3–5 times.

Neck Stretch 1. With chin slightly tucked, let right ear drop toward right shoulder. Hold stretch for 3–4 breaths, letting weight of head stretch left side of neck. Gently release stretch and repeat on other side.

Neck Stretch 2. With chin slightly tucked, drop forehead toward right shoulder as though looking under armpit. Hold stretch for 3–4 breaths, letting weight of head stretch back of neck on left side. Gently release stretch and repeat on other side.

Rock the Baby. With right hand on left elbow and left hand on right elbow, hold folded arms out in front of chest. Draw right elbow as far as you can to the right to stretch outside of left shoulder. Draw left elbow as far as you can to the left to stretch outside of right shoulder. Repeat 2–3 times on each side.

Seated Swan. Place hands on lap, tuck chin and look down at sternum. Slowly raise chin, keeping gaze straight ahead as head comes up. Press hands into thighs and continue lifting head, gently lengthening and arching upper back. End with gaze overhead and slightly behind you. Slowly return to start position and repeat.

Standing Room Only

Waiting to clear airport security is just the first of many times travelers stand in line in the course of a trip. Even with Disneyland’s FASTPASS® service, visitors must do some waiting, and the smart tourist queues up early, before the doors open, at popular museums. Your clients will be ready to make good use of waiting time with these standing exercises.

Footwork. Stand with feet parallel, 2–3 inches apart, balancing weight equally on both feet. Come up onto balls of feet, and slowly lower heels to floor, keeping weight centered. Repeat 8–10 times.

Prancing in Place. Use same start position as in exercise above. Come up onto balls of feet. Lower one heel to floor while keeping other heel raised. Alternately press one heel up as other heel comes down to floor. Repeat 12–15 times.

Knee Lift. Keeping hips level, raise one knee until thigh is parallel to floor. Maintain neutral spine, and balance in this position 15–30 seconds. Place foot back on floor and repeat balance on other side. (You can also balance on standing leg, slowly raising and lowering knee, touching toe to floor.)

Roll-Down. Bring chin to chest and slowly roll down, one vertebra at a time until spine is flexed forward, arms hanging toward floor. Bend knees slightly and roll up, stacking vertebrae one at a time, bringing head up last. Repeat 2–3 times.

Lunge. Stand with right side next to a seat or sturdy piece of luggage for support. Rest right hand on support, bend right knee and extend left leg behind you. With weight on ball of left foot, reach left heel back to lengthen leg. Level hips by sending right sit bone toward floor. Hold stretch 15–30 seconds. Repeat on other side.

A Good Offense

While being sensitive to clients’ privacy, do ask them if upcoming vacations might include any unusual physical challenges. Someone who is going to learn to sail will spend a lot of time gazing up into the rigging to check the direction of the wind. Teaching this client a series of releases for the neck will equip him to balance those hours of neck extension, possibly saving himself considerable discomfort. If a client plans to take a bicycle tour—an increasingly popular way to see different countries—discuss how she will find a neutral spine position while in the saddle, and review stretches (especially for the quads, hamstrings and chest), as well as the mat version of the Pilates swan. Horseback riders will particularly benefit from pre-trip training of the adductors

Foot Spa for Travelers

Virtually all tourists can appreciate a little TLC for the feet, whether they spend their vacation hiking through the woods or standing on marble museum floors. I teach a series of foot exercises I call the “foot spa.” Teach your traveling clients the following foot spa exercises or other portable footwork, and they’ll think warmly of you every evening as they soothe their aching feet.

Foot Spa Stretches. Sit on bed or floor with shoes off, right leg extended.

  1. Slowly point and flex foot 10–12 times.
  2. Circle foot around ankle 4–5 times in each direction.
  3. Point toes of right foot and slowly write half the alphabet.
  4. Squeeze toes of right foot as though making a fist with the foot. Release. Repeat 3–4 times.
  5. Repeat the sequence above with the left foot.

Foot Spa Tennis Ball Release. Standing or sitting with shoes off, place tennis ball under one foot. Roll ball from heel to ball of foot, pressing gently to release plantar fascia in arch of foot. Stop and press ball into any particularly tender spots, holding for 20–30 seconds or until area releases. Repeat with other foot.

Fundamentals Travel Well

Clients accustomed to working out on the Pilates apparatus won’t be able to duplicate their routines on the road. Fortunately, most of the mat repertoire requires little more than enough floor space to stretch out. Adding a towel over thick carpeting is adequate padding for most exercises.

If you teach primarily on the apparatus, offer to spend time teaching or reviewing mat exercises so clients can fill the Pilates void when away from home. People sometimes think apparatus exercises are inherently superior to mat work, but after more than a decade of doing Pilates, I still find basic mat exercises challenging and useful. Assure your clients that focusing on mat fundamentals is an effective way to maintain core strength and reinforce their mastery. Learning a few intermediate or advanced mat moves should instill appropriate respect for the exercises forming the foundation of the Pilates method.

Before you wish clients “bon voyage,” prepare a “cheat sheet” describing a customized set of six to 10 mat exercises. Familiarity with your clients’ alignment will inform the design of their “to go” workouts, allowing you to select exercises that are appropriately challenging while addressing any specific needs (maintaining strength, adding flexibility, adapting around injuries). Emphasize the importance of quality over quantity, and include a few key cues to support correct form. You can also teach the seated and standing exercises described in this article, making modifications as needed. Then give clients a copy of the bookmark (see the sidebar “Pilates for Travelers”) to slip into reading material they’ll be taking along.

Note: Now that you’ve equipped your traveling clients with tools they can use for a fit vacation, it’s time to pull out that list of people who have been patiently waiting to get on your schedule.

Laurie Leiber, MPH, earned her master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, and trained as a Pilates instructor with Balanced Body University at Turning Point Studios in Walnut Creek, California. She teaches at Center Strength in Berkeley, California.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. Health Information for International Travel 2008 (Chapter 6). Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

World Health Organization. 2007. WHO Research Into Global Hazards of Travel (WRIGHT) Project: Final Report of Phase I. Geneva: WHO Document Production Services.

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About the Author

Laurie Leiber, MPH

Laurie Leiber, MPH IDEA Author/Presenter

I teach Pilates in a beautiful, secluded studio behind my home in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood. I have a reformer, trap table, chair, arc, and many small props to keep work-outs fun and varied. I also love to teach mat exercises you can do on your own at home, work, or while traveling. I have training and personal experience in rehab for back, shoulder, and neck injuries. Every work-out is customized to your goals.