Pilates Exercise for a Healthy Spine

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These days, it is hard to know which exercise programs are fads and which are here to stay. And it is equally hard to know which offer real benefit for your particular needs. If you have a spine condition or are concerned about keeping your spine healthy, you may have heard of Pilates. You may have wondered, "What is it?" and, "Could it be good for me?"
Woman rolling up an exercise mat.Pilates has become an exercise program recommended by many healthcare professionals for those with certain spine conditions. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

What Is Pilates?

Pilates has been around a long time and has recently received popular attention. More importantly, the key concepts and principles of Pilates are backed by current scientific knowledge. It is a low-impact form of exercise that focuses on spinal range of motion, abdominal and back strengthening, flexibility, and breathing patterns.

For a variety of reasons, Pilates has become an exercise program recommended by many healthcare professionals for those with certain spine conditions, as well as for the prevention and wellness benefits it offers.

History of Pilates

Pilates is not a newly created form of exercise; ballet dancers have been using it for decades to keep in top physical condition. Pilates is named for its developer, Joseph Pilates.

Born in Germany in 1880, Joseph was a sickly child. His childhood experiences with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever stimulated his abiding interest in physical fitness later in life. In early adulthood, Joseph was a boxer and circus performer. As a nurse in a war camp in Germany during WWI, he worked with wounded soldiers doing physical training to help them recover. It was during this time that he began to develop the exercises and equipment now identified as "Pilates."

He immigrated to the United States in 1926 and opened a studio in New York City offering his clients the unique and specialized form of fitness training that he developed. Joseph Pilates described his method as one that "makes us responsible and in control of our own bodies and health."

Six Basic Principles

Pilates is a dynamic and total body exercise program that focuses on 6 basic principles:

  1. Concentration
  2. Control
  3. Centering
  4. Fluidity
  5. Precision
  6. Breathing

While performing any of the more than 500 exercises, these principles are applied whether you are on the mat or on one of the five specialized pieces of equipment used in Pilates.

In more specific and descriptive terms, Pilates exercises focus on flexibility of the spine in all planes of motion and encourages the individual to pay close attention to his or her own postural or range of motion limitations so he or she can obtain the most out of each exercise for their individual body.

The intense and constant focus on activation of the low back and pelvic stabilizers (referred to as the "powerhouse" or "core") during each exercise strengthens the muscles we know help to support the spine and protect it from injury or strengthen those muscles made weak by pain, injury, inactivity or poor postural habits.

Specific and purposeful breathing patterns help to recruit these muscles that support the spine and direct air into the lower lobes of the lungs where oxygen exchange is more efficient. Pilates addresses upper and lower extremity strength and endurance as well. Both strength and flexibility issues throughout the body are addressed when performing Pilates exercises.

Body Benefits

The other benefits of Pilates include mind—body focus, coordination, and endurance. Pilates is demanding because it takes a lot of focus and thought to perform each exercise correctly, safely, and effectively. There are many elements that have to come together at once to perform and exercise correctly: breathing, head/neck placement, spinal position, stabilization of the spine, shoulder blade placement, and coordination of arms and legs.

Accomplishing all these tasks requires a fair amount of mind-body focus and coordination. Many people initially find getting all of their parts moving in an orderly and purposeful manner the most challenging part of Pilates. But it quickly becomes the most rewarding part, as you gain confidence and control of your body in ways you never thought possible.

SpineUniverse Editorial Board Commentary
There is no longer any doubt that exercise should be an important part of our daily activities. When someone has a back condition, exercise can sometimes be very difficult. Based on your particular diagnosis, a specific exercise plan can be developed. Pilates is one example of a program that can benefit some spine patients but not all. For example, a patient with a spinal fusion should not attempt each and every one of the exercises mentioned. It is important to work closely with your physical therapist to develop a program that is just right for you.—Mary Rodts, DPN
Updated on: 12/28/19
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Pilates Workouts for a Healthy Spine
Mary Rodts, DNP
Professor Department of Women, Children and Family Nursing
Rush University College of Nursing
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Pilates Workouts for a Healthy Spine

Pilates is a strengthening exercise that just about anyone can do. Find out how Pilates can help promote a healthy lifestyle, and learn some exercises that can keep you in shape.
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