The Power of Pilates

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The century-old exercise system of Pilates gets an age-friendly makeover with a workout for all fitness levels

German-born inventor and gymnast Joseph Pilates developed the eponymous system of exercises in the 1910s. And today, it still works several muscle groups simultaneously through smooth, continuous movements with a particular emphasis on strengthening and stabilizing the abdomen, back and pelvic girdle region known as the core.

Performing the movements correctly involves finding the right rhythm and learning the correct breathing. Visualizing your core helps you breathe more fully, expanding your ribcage instead of just lifting your chest up and down. People often say they feel lighter, taller and more graceful after a Pilates workout. Pilates himself said that after 30 workouts, you would have a new body.

Pilates is a safe and effective workout for older people because it has minimal to no impact, and movements can be adapted for the individual to accommodate specific injuries and physical limitations. The aging process affects our bodies in ways that Pilates can help address. As we age, we tend to “shrink” and experience back problems; Pilates will help improve posture as it works to lengthen all the connections of the spine and enhance flexibility of back muscles. It helps maintain flexibility in joints that tend to stiffen, improves balance and co-ordination to help avoid injury from falls, and keeps muscles and movements flexible and fluid.

Pilates can also help women suffering from poor bladder control and incontinence, according to Sandra Brunner, owner of Go Pilates and creator of Princess and the Pee (, a Pilates-based workout with exercises that help build core strength that leads to improved bladder control.

“Women suffer needlessly when they are led to believe that incontinence cannot be corrected,” says Brunner, “or they’re advised to do Kegel exercises, which focus on strengthening only the pelvic floor. This alone will not prevent urinary incontinence. Pilates strengthens the entire core, not just the pelvic floor.”

A Pilates workout takes about an hour and can be done on floor mats or using specifically designed equipment. The instructor coaches you on breathing, then helps you isolate muscle groups. Once you are familiar with the Pilates style of co-ordinated flowing movement combined with long stretches, you move on to the Universal Reformer, one of Pilates’ first inventions. This high-tech machine is equipped with straps, springs, pulleys and a sliding seat, which all help muscles to lengthen and strengthen.

Many gyms and community centres now offer some type of Pilates program. It’s also possible to learn Pilates from books, online instruction and videos.

Canadian Pilates pioneer Moira Merrithew (, who is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Stott Pilates, a contemporary approach to the original exercise, has created more than 155 titles for all levels that can be seen on the Stott Pilates YouTube channel.

And read on for three new approaches to the fitness system.

Gravity training
The Workout Gravity training is a resistance workout performed on a machine called the Gravity Training System (GTS) that looks similar to the original Pilates Reformer but replaces springs with pulleys and uses gravity for part of the resistance. There’s an adjustable incline glide board – the steeper the incline (there are eight settings), the more challenging the workout.  A squat stand works the lower body, LAT (Lateral Adjustable Training) bars focus on the back and shoulders and cables target the arms.

Fitness Strategy

“You’re pulling and pushing your own body weight instead of iron weights for resistance,” says Liz Smith, instructor of the Active 55+ Light Gravity Training at the Miles Nadal JCC ( “There’s no impact or jarring on the spine and joints, so it’s perfect for anyone with fibromyalgia, arthritis, knee, hip or shoulder replacement and osteoporosis.”

What to expect

The 45-minute Light Gravity Training workout is a small class with eight machines. I’m positioned beside Marlene Bernholtz, 57, who joined four years ago to address her high risk for osteopenia, which may be a precursor to osteoporosis.

“This class is great for people who don’t like lifting weights for strength training,” says Bernholtz. “Now I have more muscles and can carry heavy bags, and my daughter says I have abs.”

The workout began with lower body movements like leg squats, then moved on to upper body work doing rows and bicep curls. Adjusting the gradient angle of the incline glide board makes the exercise harder.

I choose the smallest gradient that uses five per cent of my body weight; others are at the steepest incline that uses 59 per cent of your body weight. The atmosphere is quite social – Smith plays guess-the-show-tunes music – and the pace is intentionally slower for older adults to work at their own speed.

When the session is over, I feel worked out but not wiped out. On the way out, I speak with Jon Redfern, 66, a mystery book writer who’s been taking the gravity class for one-and-a-half years.

“Doing this class has made all the muscles in my body, from my neck to my toes, much stronger and more resilient,” says Redfern. “I see a difference in my skin tone, clarity of eyes and better posture. I have more energy to lift things, work in the garden and, mentally, it freshens me up.”

Barre-based workouts
The Workout Ballet dancers do barre classes where they practise basic moves like pliés and relevés (leg raises) while standing at a stationary wooden handrail called a barre.

Dance-inspired workouts borrow the form, alignment and high-repetition exercises of classical barre classes to sculpt long, strong dancer’s muscles.

“Barre Beautiful ( takes classical dance training moves and fuses them with Pilates’ moves and principles to create a workout that focuses on building muscular strength, control and endurance while increasing flexibility,” says Voula Floros, founder, director and Pilates instructor.

“Our exercises focus on lengthening and extending as you work. Targeted muscle work – micro-contractions and isometric contractions that strengthen and tone muscles not typically used in exercise. In a typical barre class, you’re doing several repetitions of small, pulsing contractions that tone deep into the muscle.”
Fitness Strategy

“It’s great for an older audience because it’s a full body workout that strengthens all of the muscles in the body using body weight or light hand weights, thus increasing muscle mass and improving bone density. This workout places emphasis on the postural muscles in the back and abdominals assisting in our bodies’ ability to stand taller. Plus, it’s low impact making it easy on the joints,” Floros says.

What to expect

The classic barre class at Barre Beautiful takes you through many traditional ballet exercises – leg raises, pulses and pliés. Extending your leg outward to do leg raises or pulses requires you to also lift up from the crown of the head, contract your abdominals and squeeze your legs.

Basically your entire body is engaged even if it seems that all you’re doing is going up on your toes. There are arm circles using light hand weights, followed by abdominal work on the mat. With every stretch and extension, there’s a feeling of my body being realigned and posture improved, which feels wonderful after a day sitting at a desk. There are also various ballet-influenced arm movements using light hand weights followed by abdominal work on the mat.

My second barre class is at Union Studio (, where the workout has been choreographed by Heather Ogden, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. When time permits, she teaches the barre class and, for ballet lovers, it doesn’t get better than this. Standing next to me at the barre, Ogden looks like everything I’ve imagined a prima ballerina to be, with perfect posture, classic features and an incredible body.

On the count of “five, six, seven, eight,” we follow as she demonstrates ballet movements involving pliés, ballet squats and side kicks done in first and second position. Being in her presence makes me try harder, stand taller, point my toes farther and, by the end of each class, I feel lengthened, lighter and more graceful.

Power Pilates
The Workout Described as Pilates on crack, Lagree Fitness ( was created in 2001 by Sebastien Lagree, a Los Angeles-based celebrity Pilates trainer. Lagree redesigned the original Pilates Reformer equipment, creating his own apparatus called the Megaformer on which the workout is performed. The hour-long circuit workout incorporates familiar Pilates exercises, like the hundreds and side bends, with new movements designed by Lagree.

Fitness Strategy

Lagree emphasizes doing each exercise as slowly and controlled as possible, which targets the deep stabilizing muscles of the core, glutes and pelvis, says Pino Gagliardi, Lagree Studio co-owner. “The intense circuit workout has minimal breaks between each exercise, which creates a cardiovascular effect.”

What to expect

Sebastian Lagree was in Toronto to train us during the launch of his first Canadian studio. Positioned on the Megaformer, we began the hour-long class with an abs-destroying plank pose for a full minute, and it just got harder from there. Exercises like lunges, donkey kicks, pushups, bicep curls and flys, when performed slowly to a count of four and repeated for at least one minute, are extremely challenging. Each time I thought an exercise was over came another 10 lifts at double-time.

I asked Lagree how on earth he dreamed up this kind of torture and, smiling, he said, “You don’t wanna know.”

The next day I was a sore wreck but determined to try one more class. That’s when I met Debra Thuet, 54, financial consultant, avid hiker and alpinist, who helped me put my aching muscles into perspective. Thuet joined Lagree to help recover from an eight month-old hamstring injury.

“My physiotherapist told me I have to fire up those smaller, stabilizing muscles. I came here and after two weeks I can tell you, everything is improving. It doesn’t hurt at all.”