Trendy bendy: Older people sign up for Pilates classes

PERFECT POSTURE: Jaconel Janssen has been practising pilates for two decades and says she feels much more stronger now than she did back in her 20s. Picture: David Keane

Pilates is much more than just another exercise regimen. The trendy bendy movement provides many health benefits, writes Margaret Jennings

MOVE over yoga! Pilates is the new trendy bendy movement — getting us oldies stretching our limbs and engaging our core — while focussing our mind as well as our body.

A long list of older celebrities incorporate Pilates into their work-out routines and 60-year-old American actress Jamie Lee Curtis, for example, is quoted as saying:

“Pilates is the only exercise programme that has changed my body and made me feel great.”

Of course, it’s not exactly a new kid on the block; the controlled movement routine was created by physical trainer Joseph Pilates, in the 1920s, for the purpose of rehabilitation — and millions of people have been practising it for decades.

But as increasing numbers of us expect to live longer into our later decades and hope to stay functionally fit, Pilates has piqued our interest, as it blends the benefits of strengthening, flexibility and balance — all of which are very necessary to keep our ageing bodies in tip-top condition.

For those who are sporty it complements other activities as the main goal is to hit our core — or ‘powerhouse’ as it is called in the Pilates world — which effects our lower back, abdomen, hip and pelvic muscles.

It’s good enough it seems, for that ‘human powerhouse’, Madonna, aged 61 in August, who incorporates it into her daily physical programme. But for us ordinary mortals, strengthening our core as we age is also essential for everyday functional tasks, such as correctly carrying heavy items like our shopping bags — a task that the famous entertainer is unlikely to have to face.

Closer to home, however, Cork-city based Jaconel Janssen, who has been teaching Pilates for the past 14 years, says that over the past five, there has been a big increase in the number of people aged over 50 attending.

“They are my busiest classes and people are so excited about it — because the effects are so immediate — that they bring their friends, neighbours and sisters. The men are lagging behind a little bit though,” says Jaconel.

She herself took up Pilates to deal with her repetitive strain injury in 2000:

“I was a desktop publications manager for a health charity in the UK and had problems with my arms, my hands, my neck and my back.”

One of the many benefits of practising Pilates is becoming more aware of how we hold ourselves — our posture. “The benefits to good posture are endless really,” she says. Back health is an obvious one; then the mobility of the joints is much better; your balance improves; you bear your weight over the hips and the spine much better, and your breathing also improves.”

The likelihood of falling — which is an increasing risk as we age — is a lot lower with better balance, she points out, and walking is improved because the hips can function better and the legs are stronger.

When our posture is good, we radiate a healthier image of ourselves too, because we tend to feel stronger — as opposed to that ageist image of people in later life being bent over.

“You look healthier I suppose — and more confident. When you have better posture you will feel more confident as well; Pilates is more than just exercise — it’s a body-mind movement,” says Joconel. “But also it is healthier — the organs are better placed, everything functions a little bit better with better posture; it’s much more than looking better, it affects everything really.”

That change can be noticed immediately too: “I’ve been teaching the specifically older classes for a couple of years now and people after one session say ‘I feel very different’ — as they change their posture; I suppose the word I prefer is alignment — the body is better aligned and feels different straight away.”

“All the principles of Pilates are applicable to the ageing process — the balance, flexibility, the breathing and the co-ordination which is good for the brain as well,” says Jaconel. “But every movement is good and we also need aerobic exercise which Pilates might not give; it’s not the be all and end all, but it’s a fantastic basis.”

As well as holding mat sessions (on the floor) she also teaches chair Pilates separately with students ranging in age from their mid-60s to mid-80s, and adds: “I just found out one of my students is 86 — I thought she was younger!”

Jaconel herself is in her mid-50s and has been practising for almost two decades now.

“I feel much stronger than I did in my 20s and 30s — I really do. I feel stronger and more relaxed and more flexible because I move so much more.”

Her experience is in keeping with a quote from one of Joseph Pilates’ books: “If at 30 you are stiff and out of shape you are old. If at 60 you are supple and strong you are young”.

See: www.pilatespeoplecork.com

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