No age limits to working out
Clinical Pilates can be used to help manage pain and improve quality of life for people of all ages, writes NIAMH GRIFFIN
BLACK SWAN actress Mila Kunis is a fan, rugby players do it, Bruce Springsteen does it. And physiotherapists say older people can also use Clinical Pilates to manage pain and improve their quality of life.
Former Leinster rugby physiotherapist Frances Moran says she has treated many people in their 60s and 70s. “Clinical Pilates allows us to take treatment further. We focus on basic activities like standing or sitting without pain, so you are not just lying on a bed being treated.”
This form of Pilates was developed for ballet dancers in Australia to help repair damaged muscles and maintain strength over a long season. It’s based on repeating gentle exercises to correct a “faulty” movement pattern which, in turn, improves comfort levels.
Exercises are mostly done on a mat in simple standing, sitting or lying down positions. Moran says: “Some people say they can’t do this because of their age. But it’s very good for posture, for preventing joint damage or repairing wear and tear. If they have chronic arthritis, they can maintain themselves so they don’t get worse.”
It is taught only to chartered physiotherapists, unlike other forms of Pilates, so medical knowledge is behind every decision.
Moran says: “It can be modified to any level. We can make adaptations to help people find it easier to get out of a chair or do the hoovering.”
While ballet dancers need stability to stand “en pointe”, those same central muscles help everyone to breathe. She says that people might need to retrain their basic posture, starting with breathing and only then adding in movement.
In the sessions, people concentrate on small movements and become aware of how parts of the body work together. Moran stresses that it’s not a miracle cure or a quick fix, but in 10 years she has seen many people “reverse years of deterioration” having changed how they move.
There’s the catch. Simply going to one session won’t cure ongoing illnesses, but following instructions at home can make all the difference.
Cork-based physiotherapist Jo Chapple says she started using Clinical Pilates when working with the NHS in England. She realised the treatment could help people who were not improving with more traditional forms of physiotherapy.
She says: “You are never too old to try. This kind of gentle treatment can help people who’re starting to feel stiff or are putting up with pain because they think it’s natural for their age.”
Chapple says Clinical Pilates is like a tool to help people manage pain, move more freely and improve their quality of life over time.
“It’s about interactive learning. Someone might not be able to sit for long without pain, but coming to me once a week won’t cure that on its own,” she says. “You need to apply what is taught, and maybe change how you sit or how you stand.”
Like Moran, many of her clients have tried other treatments and may have suffered for years. She says it can help with many conditions including osteoporosis or spinal stenosis.
Susan Lucey (63), from Cork, had sciatica four years ago. She says: “I was taking 25 tablets a day as I was in a lot of pain, and I ended up in traction. My physiotherapist recommended Clinical Pilates, but I wasn’t convinced until I tried it with Jo three years ago.”
Now, she says, the pain has completely cleared up. Lucey says the therapy has made her more aware of her movements, and adds: “I don’t have any problems on the mats, but some weeks it’s a little tougher than others. You have to make the effort.”
Lucey used to play golf but stopped because of the pain. Now she’s playing again – slowly getting back to it– and feels fitter with more energy.
She says: “I’m walking again, and out meeting people, that’s the important thing. It is truly miserable to be inside. It’s given me back my life.”
Both Moran and Chapple use some equipment including elastic bands, foam rollers and gentle trapeze-like pulleys – no tutu required – to focus on areas of the body or groups of muscles which are not working smoothly.
It’s this concentrated focus which makes the treatment so effective for dancers, athletes or people with ongoing pain.
Moran says that concentration is also needed from the clients. “It takes patience, you have to give it your all while you’re here and you need to be calm.”
But machines aside, both say that mostly the treatment works through helping people become aware of their bodies and how they move.
Chapple says: “It doesn’t have to be about the machines. It’s about a way of life, about healthy, normal and pain-free movement for everyone regardless of age.”