Pilates is a term banded about by people of all ages and in various states of health and fitness. Banish images of the Lycra brigade hotfooting it to the gym or muscular types clutching energy drinks; instead, bring to mind a mixed group of people with the common goal of challenging and improving their bodies.

pilates arthritis, pilates fibromaygia, pilates back pain, arthritis digestWhat is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of exercise that uses movement and breath to strengthen the body, with particular emphasis on developing strength in the trunk to enhance general fitness and wellbeing. It is designed to increase stamina and flexibility, and helps maintain posture, which reduces stresses and strains on the body.

“Pilates was started by a man called Joseph Pilates who believed it was possible to help our bodies move in a more integrated way,” explains Rosie Minogue, director of the Pilates Foundation.

There are six core principles of Pilates, outlines Lesley McPherson, director of the Pilates Teacher Association:

“These comprise concentration, centring, control, breath, precision and flow, and were actually written about in 1983 by two students of the method.”

Pilates is a great form of exercise, and the good news is that people with arthritis can enjoy its benefits as much as anyone else.

“We recommend low-impact exercise for people with arthritis,” highlights Dr Fiona Chikusu from Versus Arthritis. “Pilates is ideal as people will benefit by easing the strain on joints, strengthening the muscles and reducing joint stiffness.”

pilates arthritis, arthritis exercise, pilates health benefits, arthritis digestOsteoarthritis

Pilates is believed to help create space in the joints therefore relieving any unnecessary pressure. It develops stamina in the soft tissue, which over time will help support the joints, protecting cartilage against any further deterioration. Physical activity also generally helps to ease pain and keep joints mobile. And the science agrees with the theory, explains Dr Chikusu:

“A literature review published in 2016 and a randomised control trial that was published in 2012 show that Pilates exercises led to improvement in many clinical parameters, especially when performed as group therapy.”

Inflammatory arthritis

We are beginning to understand that there is a connection between stress and inflammatory arthritis so the combination of using breath and movement is particularly helpful as it encourages release, which calms the nervous system and reduces pain.

As Pilates is gentle on the joints and over time builds strength in the body it helps to take strain out of the joints also leading to less pain. But at times of heightened disease activity, do be careful.

“Breathing techniques learned in the session may help with relaxing but if a student has an inflammatory form of arthritis, they should not work out if there is a flare-up,” warns Lesley. “The apparatus used in Pilates sessions can provide great support for people who have challenges in movement or lying down. Starting to learn Pilates early on after a diagnosis may be able to maintain greater movement for longer.”

How to get started

There are lots of Pilates teachers in the UK but they have different levels of knowledge and teaching. If you have arthritis or other specific health issues it is a good idea to search for someone with relevant experience who has a good amount of training.

The Pilates Teacher Association has a list of members and can search for a teacher who may not be a member but has full comprehensive qualifications. Alternatively, the Pilates Foundation can search for teachers in specific areas.

Ask for recommendations from friends, family, the GP surgery and any arthritis support groups you may know of.

“Always meet with the teacher and visit a studio first before booking in for a lesson,” recommends Lesley. “You should be asked to compete a screening form to find out more about your medical history and current situation. Where appropriate, a teacher will speak to a medical professional for guidance if there is any range of motion that could be more (or less) useful to the participant.”

What happens in a class?

“The teacher explains a series of movements designed to give you a range of physical challenges that will develop or release different areas of your body,” says Rosie. “You will spend some time lying down, you will stretch, you should actively breathe and use your abdominal muscles. You might work on your shoulders, feet, balance, the strength of your legs or all of these things, and it will vary between sessions.”

Be careful and only do exercises within your pain threshold and flexibility. Start slowly and gradually increase, be consistent with the demands you make of your body and keep active outside of classes. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting an exercise regime in order to avoid risk of injury.

Pilates sessions vary depending on how well your body functions and the sort of class you are attending. If you have significant pain and restriction in your movement it is not advisable to be in a large class where it will be difficult for the teacher to address your specific needs.

“The most effective choice is a one to one private session with specialist Pilates equipment and although it is the most expensive option it is easier to make progress,” Rosie says. “There are also small group sessions on machines, and mat work classes that can be in a small group or larger groups. In those classes you work with your own body weight and some small pieces of equipment.”

The Pilates Teacher Association does not recommend group classes of more than 12 people.

“When people first start Pilates they may find it frustrating because it can take time to learn how to move with precision and coordinate the breath,” says Rosie. “But with patience your body will get the hang of it. Pilates can take you on an amazing journey and help you feel very differently about your body.”

Further information

True story: Marlene Ferrigno, 82 years old, California

“In 2012 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It was crippling my body; I could barely walk or use my hands. The pain, fatigue and medication were taking a toll on my body.

“I met my Pilates teacher, Sue Prince, in 2014 and began working with her on a piece of apparatus called the reformer. She had to help me on and off the reformer and I had trouble holding onto the straps. I slowly began to regain the use of my hands and the strength in my legs. Sue could read my body. She knew when I was having a bad day and knew when she could push me.

“I worked with Sue for three years. I have regained the use of my hands and the strength in my legs. I have more energy and feel great. Pilates gave me back my life. I may be 82 years old but I feel like I’m 60 years old now!”

True story: Don McPherson, aged 68 years old, Ayrshire

“I was only in my forties when I was told I would need hip replacements within 12 months. My doctor said that years of participating in martial arts had led to osteoarthritis, and I had damage from a break some years before. I gave up the martial arts and some years later took up Pilates, primarily as a way to get some movement back in my hips, but now I teach it too.

“Over 20 years on, I am still moving well and have never needed surgery. I’m a believer in making the most of what you have for as long as you can, and Pilates can enable this to happen.”