By Janice Jaicks
Pilates is a form of mat (or floor) exercise that has been around since the early 20th century when it was developed by German physical-culturist Joseph Pilates. Pilates exercise is known for working the core-- essentially your body minus the arms and the legs. The major muscles of the core reside in the area of the belly and the mid- and lower back (not the shoulders), and peripherally include the hips, the shoulders and the neck. A strong core assures a strong foundation, which in turn assures good posture, alignment, and strength. A strong core is also the key to a strong, healthy back. And we all know that as we age our backs tend to get weaker, leading to aches and pains and bigger health issues later on.
A land Pilates class is a fabulous way to strengthen your core, lengthen your legs and work your entire body to make you feel great. However, many people may not find it easy to get up and down off the floor. So in floats water Pilates! With the buoyant and resistant qualities of the water protecting your joints and muscles, the benefits of Pilates in the water are endless.
In the water, we must first develop a sense of our own body and focus. Since we do not have gravity, focus and awareness are instrumental to truly working the core. My first suggestion is to learn how to breathe properly. Place your hands on the sides of your navel (one on each side) breath in through the nose and exhale with pursed lips. Feel your rib cage expanding, but your shoulders should not lift. Try this several times. Be sure you are “feeling” your abdominal muscles. It might be helpful to view an anatomy chart and see where your rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominals are.
Once you have this mastered on the land, bring your body into the water. Practice this breathing in the water while walking steadily and be sure that you feel stable and secure. Note: Never go into the pool alone, even if you are an adult avid swimmer, in case of an emergency. Always consult a physician before beginning a new exercise program.
Using a foam noodle (easily purchased from Target, Fry’s, etc.) you can begin. You may want to use two small noodles or one larger Monster Noodle if you find that you are sinking into the water too much. Remember to “engage” your abdominals -- navel to spine -- and practice your breathing technique.
Here are six exercises that you can do on your own:
• Plank: Lay hands on top of noodle (towards the middle of the noodle) and extend one leg way back on the pool’s floor until you can’t go any further and you are on the balls of your foot, then extend the other leg back to meet it. Press hands into noodle, press navel to spine and exhale. Inhale, relax. Repeat 5X or more. Next, push the noodle down with both arms. (Bend elbows/more advanced move will have straight arms) This will look similar to the "up" part of a regular push up. If comfortable, lift your legs off the ground and try to remain perfectly still. Abdominals engaged.
• Side Plank: With one hand/arm lean to one side. (Almost like you are “falling” to one side; feet will remain next to each other). Enjoy this long, oblique stretch. Next submerge the noodle with this arm, while placing your opposing hand on your opposing hip. Your weight should be centered, your body should be completely turned to the side you are working, and your eyes should be straight ahead. You may also try lifting your legs off the pool floor slightly. Then change sides.
• Hundreds: Place noodle behind your back (resting below arm pits and below your neck on the upper part of your back) and take both feet off the floor. Whenever both feet are off the floor this is known as a suspended move in the aquatics world. Press navel to spine and exhale as you fold your body (top half meets bottom half, however you will only lift a few inches) and exhale with pursed lips while pressing your hands down and up in the water on both sides of your hips ten times. Rest. Your goal is to do this 10 times total.
• Funky Chicken: Suspended, extend both legs to the front and point toes; hold for 5 seconds. Navel to spine, tuck knees underneath, exhale and extend both legs to the back. Point toes; hold 3 seconds. You will now be completely prone in the water. To avoid hyperextension, chin should be in or near the water. Bend knees and tuck underneath; then extend to the front. Repeat 5-10X. Note: if you do not already have a strong core and a healthy back, do not go all the way back with your legs. Progressively build up to this.
• Side to Side: Suspended, extend both legs to the side, then underneath, then to the other side. This exercise is just like the Funky Chicken, but it is done to the sides for the obliques.
• Pencil: Suspended in an area of the pool where you cannot touch, allow your body to be erect or perpendicular, just like a pencil. Legs and feet are together for this entire exercise. Use your feet like the tip of the pencil and draw a small circle using the abdominal muscles. Slowly circle 5 times one way, then go the other way. Continue 5X. (Picture a protractor!)
Remember: focus, concentrate, and breathe. You cannot truly be doing Pilates if you are talking to your friend at the same time you are working out! The many benefits of water Pilates are: complete core work, improving back health and improving posture, enhancing concentration, strengthening, balance and coordination, creating better mobility and flexibility, reducing stress on joints, increasing range of motion, and improving overall cardiovascular function. Give it a shot!