Pilates Plus

It's all gain - without the pain

The Telegraph | 5th March 2007

Cyclist Jenny Kingsley always dismissed Pilates as a New Age gimmick. Then she broke her hip and was forced to reassess her prejudices.

Fifteen months ago, I broke my hip when I fell off my bicycle to avoid a collision with a car - better the risk of broken bones, I reasoned in that split second, than death. Somehow, I managed to rise, chain my bike to the railings and take a taxi home.

Later, the pain became excruciating. My husband convinced me that I should see a doctor, and an X-ray confirmed my worst fears. My hip was broken and would have to be pinned.

Thanks to private health care, the surgery could be performed the next day and I was up the morning after, hanging on to a Zimmer frame, guided and cajoled by a cheery physiotherapist. Apparently my "fit" state and light build enabled my swift progress and I went home with crutches the following day.

A few months after the operation, my surgeon and physiotherapist recommended I take up Pilates. I'd always considered myself fit, having for years enjoyed cycling, hi/lo aerobics and rambling with my family, and I had always regarded Pilates as a ridiculous New Age gimmick for people pretending to exercise.

Grudgingly, I tried a class at my local health club. The air in the studio was warm and the lights were dimmed. We stood in front of the mirror barefooted and warmed up, checking that our neck, shoulders, pelvis, legs, knees and feet were properly aligned.We bent and straightened the spine, vertebrae by vertebrae. We did hip rolls, leg slides, spine curls and the Hundreds, where the legs are bent at an angle, extended upwards, or straight out, and held for counts of five while we flapped our arms.

By this point I had realised that Pilates was not for wimps. It is now part of the rhythm of my life and I am tickled pink to know that glitterati such as Hugh Grant, Madonna and Rachel Weisz, as well as international athletes, including members of the All Blacks rugby team, practise my favourite form of exercise.

The goal is to strengthen the core or "powerhouse" of your body, the area between the lower ribs and hips. The theory is that a strong centre supports and decompresses the spine, so posture improves. The emphasis is on stretching. The range of movement determines the intensity of the exercise. So you may do small circles with your legs for the first few months and wider circles once you are stronger and can keep your back and pelvis in the correct alignment.

Once your body is no longer scrunched up, your insides function more effectively. The breathing technique helps you breathe fully and wakes up your mind and body. For me, there is gain without pain and, because Pilates makes me feel so good inside and out, I keep coming back for more. My tummy is flatter, I feel more supple, I instinctively sit up straight at my desk and back pain is less irksome.

People ask if Pilates can help them lose weight. Yes, it can, as respected London instructor Gillian Greenwood explains: "Improved posture makes it easier for your digestive organs to work efficiently. The feelgood factor makes you inclined to eat the right foods, exercise regularly and perhaps change your lifestyle. Self-esteem improves when you look and feel thinner so you have more faith in yourself, and the world has more faith in you."

But as Pilates is not a cardiovascular workout, Gillian advises devotees to do some form of aerobic exercise as well.

GPs, consultants, osteopaths and physiotherapists often recommend Pilates for its recuperative assets, suitable for all ages and physical conditions. There are classes for pre- and postnatal women, the elderly, and even those suffering from cancer, endometriosis and multiple sclerosis.

Many instructors are also physiotherapists. Dr Edward Huskisson, a consultant rheumatologist at the London Clinic, recommends Pilates to patients with back, neck and arthritic problems as a "nice exercise regime. It's non-violent," he chuckles.

I realise how lucky I am that my accident wasn't fatal and that my hip has healed. I am thankful, too, that the break forced me to reassess my prejudices and give Pilates a whirl.