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Prime Time for Pilates
By Moira Merrithew with Catherine Komlodi
and Alison Hope
as published in THE JOURNAL ON ACTIVE AGING, March/April 2002

The trend towards more balanced, sensible approaches to health and wellness has gained momentum in the past few years. Many of those who pumped and jumped at gyms during the aerobics-crazed ’80s are physically burnt out from “feeling the burn.” The pavement-pounders notice their backs and joints aren’t what they used to be. And stressful careers and family demands leave some mentally drained and disconnected. Boomers and older adults are looking for kinder, gentler wellness solutions—and they’re exploring mind-body fitness, such as yoga, tai chi and pilates, as if their lives depended on it.

In October 2001, IDEA Fitness Manager reported that pilates topped the list of fitness programs that have experienced the most significant growth in the club market in the last five years—well ahead of other mind-body approaches. So what exactly is this exercise regime that is slowly seeping into the mainstream vernacular?

Pilates Past and Present

Pilates (pronounced “puh-LAH-tees”) is named for the man who originated the moves back in the early 1900s. Joseph H. Pilates was a German gymnast-turned-nurse with a lifelong interest in body conditioning. Pilates pioneered a repertoire of 500-plus exercises to be performed on a mat and on specialized resistance equipment. He originally had the rehabilitation market in mind but, when he opened a New York City studio in the 1920s, his method became the darling of the dance world for its ability to foster strength and endurance while creating long, lean muscles.

While Pilates was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time, the science of exercise has evolved throughout subsequent decades. Contemporary adaptations of Pilates’ principles have emerged, leveraging advances in physical therapy, spinal research, biomechanical principles and anatomical understanding to ensure each exercise is performed with optimal safety and results in mind.

The goal of contemporary pilates is to develop a body that operates effectively and efficiently not just for sport, but also for daily life. It’s a systematic discipline of precise movements requiring concentration and focus to isolate specific muscles, thereby engaging both mind and body. The versatile array of exercises emphasizes controlled breathing and three-dimensional continuous movement, training several muscle groups at once. Some moves can be performed on a simple mat, while others require precision-engineered equipment bearing names such as Reformers, Cadillacs, Chairs and Barrels.

Routines focus on Core Conditioning and peripheral mobility through actions that stretch, strengthen and tone muscles, with a particular focus on the abdominal, pelvic, lower-back and scapula regions—the body’s powerhouse. Core Conditioning, known generically as torso stability, is essential to improving balance. This is an important factor for older adults, considering one in three people over the age of 65 fall each year.

Pilates uses gentle resistance to improve muscular strength. This is key for aging adults, who can lose up to 50% of their strength between the ages of 30 and 80 if they don’t work at maintaining it. But it is never too late to reap the benefits of strength training. In 1994, a Tufts University study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that elderly participants who embarked on this type of training program improved their strength 113% within a 10-week period.

Other benefits of pilates include improved flexibility, agility, coordination and body awareness, as well as increased circulation, reduced blood pressure, better joint mobility and improved posture. Studies have shown that this kind of exercise can help fend off cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, back pain and injury (La Forge, 1998). Furthermore, pilates heightens concentration, relieves tension and improves mood, as it actively engages the body and mind.

Gayle Winegar has noticed a growing demand for mind-body exercise at The Sweat Shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, where an estimated 75% of her clientele are aged 45 and up. Capitalizing on this trend, her contemporary pilates program has experienced a steady climb in the last few years. Winegar says, “People come seeking—for whatever reasons—and then become converts.”

Sage Cowles, 76, is one such convert. A former dancer and champion race walker, she has embraced a variety of mind-body regimens throughout the years and now practices pilates once or twice a week. “[Pilates] helps me feel connected on a physical and emotional level,” says Cowles. “It’s a safe approach to staying in shape and it’s easy on the joints.”


While pilates has long been the secret weapon of performing artists and professional athletes, it is particularly appropriate for the maturing market, which may have special needs and preferences to consider.

Until recently, fitness marketing messages were geared to the under-50 crowd. Preconceptions of a hard-bodied, youth-focused gym culture can often seem uninviting to older adults, while loud music, perpetual jumping and adrenaline-hyped trainers can be a turnoff. Pilates provides a suitable alternative or adjunct to other fitness offerings, be it in a specialty studio, health club, senior center, retirement community or therapeutic clinic. Its low-to- no-impact method emphasizes quality, not quantity, movements, and post-session clients feel strong, not strained; invigorated, yet relaxed.

The physical and psychological payoffs from these holistic approaches are undeniable. Ralph La Forge, a leading mind-body fitness research specialist at Duke University Medical Center, affirms a growing body of scientific evidence supports mindful exercise as a significant means of favorably altering various aspects of health, specifically mood state and cardiovascular risk factors.

Each pilates session is tailored to the abilities of the individual. The precise techniques, the deliberate moves, the subtle nuances of correct form, the breathing and visualization cues, the specialized equipment with springs, levers and rolling components: all these factors necessitate that pilates be performed under the close supervision of a highly trained instructor, ideally in one-on-one sessions or small groups.

Certified professionals have the expertise to assess clients, slowly introduce them to the fundamentals, and then safely prescribe progressive exercises best suited to their current range of motion and overall fitness goals. These professionals can adapt standard moves, adjust intensity and alter duration to accommodate any physical limitations and guard against injury. This monitored, customized approach ensures participants of all ages and conditions get the most benefit out of a pilates session.

The versatility of the system also lends itself well to the older market. If the equipment seems intimidating, mat-based exercises can ease people, based on their functionality, into pilates principles. If getting down on the floor is a problem, many equipment pieces are positioned at a comfortable bed-like level. If being horizontal is disorienting, there are plenty of moves performed in a seated position.

If the resistance on the Reformer or Trapeze Table is too much, spring tension can be easily adjusted. If back pain is an issue, supportive pieces such as the Arc Barrel and Spine Supporter can be deployed. There is something for everyone, and sufficient variety to allow for a continually evolving and challenging program.

“I start every morning with my mat exercises,” says octogenarian Molly Lynn of St. Paul, Minnesota, “it’s my lifeline.” Lynn not only practices pilates, she teaches it. Certified in 1998, Lynn often has Reformer clients who are 30 years her junior—showing pilates really is ageless.

For those in a more deconditioned state, pilates can bridge the gap between fitness and rehab. Years of body neglect left 56- year-old music professional Mickey Erbe in rough shape. Postural problems from his sedentary lifestyle led to significant back pain—even walking became a challenge. “I literally lost the use of my left arm,” Erbe remembers. After seeing chiropractors and acupuncturists, he thought he’d try this “pilates thing” he’d been hearing about.

Erbe admits he tried pilates on a lark. “At first I thought I’d crack if I as much as leaned over,” he says, “but from the first hour I felt terrific.” The deep breathing and gentle stretching did him wonders. Committed to twice weekly private sessions, Erbe credits pilates with increasing his stamina, flexion and strength, and restoring his ability to lead an active life.


Functional fitness is the name of the game for today’s aging adults. Kris Kory, practice manager of the Special Care Holistic Wellness Connection in New Britain, Connecticut, says, “[The aging market] is looking not only to slow down the aging process, but they’re also exercising to improve their quality of life, so they have more functionality and mobility in their everyday activities.”Pilates is poised to play a prominent role in this growing movement, as more and more people come to realize there is a way to grow old gracefully.


IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, 2001

IHRSA/ASD Health Club Trend Report, 1999

National Aging Research Survey, conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart for the Alliance for Aging Research, May 2001

Nelson, M.A. Strong Women Stay Young. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Publishers, 1997

“Nonpharmacologic Management for Osteoarthritis.” AMA; May 14, 1999

Older Americans 2000: Key Indicators of Well-Being— Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics

“Physical Exercise and the Prevention of Disability in Activities of Daily Living in Older Persons with Osteoarthritis.” Archives of Internal Medicine 2001; 161:2309-2316

Profiles of Success, IHRSA’s Industry Data Survey of the Health & Fitness Club Industry, 2000

Profiles of Success, IHRSA’s Industry Data Survey of the Health & Fitness Club Industry, 2001

Ralph La Forge, M.S. “Research Case for Mindful Exercise Grows.” IDEA Health & Fitness Source, July-August 1998

Ryan, Patricia. “Key Trends in Programs and Equipment.” IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 13, Number 5, October 2001

“Women, Exercise and Aging.” JAMA 2001; 285:1429-1431

Moira Merrithew is executive vice president and program director of STOTT PILATES, which specializes in contemporary pilates education, videos and equipment manufacturing. Also with STOTT PILATES are Catherine Komlodi, communications manager, and Alison Hope, vice president of Marketing & Communications. For more information about STOTT PILATES, call 1-800-910-0001