How to Create Pilates Workouts for Seniors

Posted by Amy Davis

senior-pilates

Let’s talk about why Pilates is a workout that should even be considered for our senior population. Pilates was created by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. It was originally named “contrology” by Joseph Pilates.

The exercises were created to cure ill health and showed to improve balance and well as create a mind and body connection. One famous quote of Joseph Pilates is, “A man is as young as his spinal column.”

Pilates develop the deep muscles of the back and core to offer support to the spine.

The 6 Principles of Pilates

There are six or more other main principles of Pilates, but the following are agreed upon by most Pilates experts:

  1. Concentration
  2. Control
  3. Center
  4. Flow
  5. Precision
  6. Breath

The Benefits of Pilates for Seniors

All six principles are benefits for persons of any age, but combine them with the low impact options and Pilates becomes a perfect senior workout.

Some of the other benefits of Pilates, specifically dealing with seniors are the reduction of aches and pains due to the fact that as the core strengthens it is able to distribute body weight more efficiently.

The strengthening of the core also benefits improves posture, allowing seniors to stand taller and battle gravity and aging joints. The strengthened core also assists with breathing by isolating the breath within the core giving shoulder and neck muscles a needed break.

The Difference Between Normal Pilates and Senior Pilates

Now let’s talk about how a senior’s Pilates class should differ from a general population Pilates class. As bodies age, a list of additional concerns comes into play.

These concerns include:
  • Balance challenges
  • General mobility
  • Lack of range of motion
  • Arthritis
  • Specialized medical challenges with breath, vision, hearing and others.

A senior Pilates class should take all of these concerns into account to give the safest most inclusive workout possible. This is where specific senior adaptions should be considered.

Adaptions for a Seniors Pilates class

Get the Right Equipment

When the fitness industry thinks of a senior’s class, the first picture that comes to mind is usually chair aerobics and possibly a scarf being waved around by a gray haired lady. There is a great reason for this, it works. Equipment options make fitness much more accessible for seniors.

Chair

The benefits of adding a chair in fitness classes are vast. The first being that in standing exercises the chair offers balance and stability support if needed. The senior can bounce back and forth between using the back of chair to assist balance and just standing near.

The chair is also a good option for all seated and kneeling exercises. Instead of taking the senior all the way to the floor for traditional mat exercises, the variations of the floor exercises can be accomplished on a chair. The chair can also be used as an aid to allow the senior to easily move to the floor and return to standing.

Blocks

Blocks serve a great purpose of bringing the floor closer to the senior and offer three different height variations. Sitting on a block can adjust and help with a posterior pelvic tilt or tight hamstrings as it raises the hips above the knees.

Using one block in each hand can help in lunges or when the hands are on the floor. There is also a comfort options with single leg kneeling exercises. The kneeling knee can be on the block instead of the mat to add more padding and allow the back ankle better access to the floor.

Wedges

There are various wedge options available. There are small wedges that provide hand and wrist support, keeping the wrist from extreme extension.

There are also large core sized wedges that assist in incline full body exercises, they make is possible for the head to stay above the heart helping with blood pressure or glaucoma concerns.

Straps or Bands

Straps and bands are great tools to help increase levers or offer more support. In exercises where arms aren’t quite long enough to reach something, a strap can be used to lengthen the arms, essentially acting as an addition to the limb. As the body becomes more mobile the strap can become shorter.

A strap or band is also great to help with range of motion, if the arms can’t reach to clasp behind the head or back a strap can act as the connector. Levers, such as legs, can also be assisted by a strap, allowing the arms to help hold the weight of the leg, not just the core in certain exercises.

Mats

Pilates was created with major pieces of equipment, but it has evolved in modern day to mat Pilates with little or no equipment. Mat Pilates may be what most people think of when they plan to attend a Pilates class. Mat and floor work may cause some concerns with seniors. First because the senior needs to be able to safely get down, and then also get back up.

The floor may be hard and the mat thin offering little joint support and comfort. When teaching a class down on the mat, ensure that mats are thicker in quality.  Recommend that the mats be doubled up or folded over to provide extra padding. As getting up and down on the floor can also be a concern with seniors, have chairs available or practice near a wall to offer assistance.

How to Set up a Senior Pilates Class for Sucess

Coming to a Pilates class will be out of many senior’s comfort zones, so it is important to provide an inclusive and safe experience. Allow social time at the beginning and end of class. Be clear on the equipment needed at the beginning so the senior doesn’t need to do a lot of gathering.

If you chose to have music, make sure the volume is low enough that you can still be heard. Face your students and model full range of motion, even if that is not available to most of the class.

As we age, balance declines, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from doing exercises with balance options. It is important to continue challenging the bodies with balance. When teaching seniors Pilates classes, it’s a great idea to have a variety of balance options.

Have the class stand near the walls so that the opportunity for support is always there. There is nothing worse than and instructor saying, “If you struggle with balance walk to the wall for support.” Then the senior has to do the walk of shame, or worse, the ego gets in the way and the risk for a fall is taken. If the entire class is near the wall it is ready and available for all, making the class feel more accessible and inclusive. Keep balance exercises shorter and concise.

Don’t get seniors into the balancing position as you explain the exercise or offer variations, provide all the information up front, then move into the balance position when ready to do the moves. Also, it’s a great idea to give breaks, in balance, building the balancing sessions to longer lengths as the class progresses.

Range of Motion in Senior Pilates Classes

Range of motion in Pilates is a great way to increase the intensity of an exercise. It can also be a great way to add options in exercises. Joseph Pilates was quoted in pushing the quality over quantity of an exercise. In regards to motion, motion is lotion for seniors.

Moving the joints will lubricate and increase range. This means Pilates exercises for seniors should focus on the greatest range of motion available and few repetitions, but the reps that are done should be quality, having the greatest range possible.

Traditional Pilates classes are also done barefoot to allow for dorsiflexion and plantar flexion providing more control through the lower leg muscles. Many seniors may have apprehension with taking shoes off, due to mobility issues.

Once they are off, they have to get put back on. The solution to this is allow the shoes to stay on during the workout if it makes the seniors feel comfortable. Another option would be once again providing chairs to sit in to remove shoes and a little extra time so no one feels rushed with the task.

Great Pilates Exercises for Seniors

Here are three exercises that are great for seniors with adaption options. Once you get the gist of adaptions, it is easy to take any traditional Pilates exercise and make it work for a senior population.

Exercise # 1: Hundred

Traditional Exercise-

  • Lie supine on the mat.
  • Low back and core are pulled into imprint where lower back presses into the mat as transverse abdominals are engaged.
  • Nod chin to the chest and raise head and shoulders up of the mat to create more work in the core.
  • Arms extend to the sides with finger tips reaching to the ankles.
  • Arms pulse quickly and within as six inch range.
  • Inhale breath for five pulses breath is staccato and exhale breath for five pulses.
  • Continue for ten cycles or until a hundred pulses are reached.

Senior Adaptions-

  • Assisting with the head lift by putting one hand behind the head to support.
  • Use a full body wedge to raise the head and assist in engaging the core.
  • Practice hundred in the chair, sitting at the very edge of the chair and leaning back, engage the core and pulse the arms.

Exercise #2: Single Leg Circles

Traditional Exercise -

  • Lie supine on the mat.
  • Lift one leg into the air, perpendicular to body, keeping it mostly straight and the opposing leg lies flat on the mat, engaged.
  • The extended leg, also known as the gesture leg, extends down toward the floor as the breath exhales.
  • The gesture leg then abducts and circles out and up with and inhale and returns to right above the hip, the starting position.

Senior Adaptions-

  • If the senior is down on the mat, simple adaptions would be shortening the range of motion by bending either leg or both or taking the leg circle smaller.
  • Use the chair or a wall for balance support and do the exercises standing balanced on one leg.
  • The exercise can also be done in a seated position on the chair, lifting and extending one leg as straight as possible and making small circles.

Exercise #3: Spine Stretch

Traditional Exercise-

Begin seated on the mat, legs are extended about should distance apart and feet are flexed. Lengthen the back and neck reaching head toward the sky and arms reach upward. Inhale extend arms out in front, shoulder height, exhale and lengthen the spine into a C-curve forward. Inhale and extend the arms back up overhead and repeat.

Senior Adaptions-

For any seated exercise a great senior adaption is to sit on a block to lift the hips higher than the knees and allow for better spinal mobility. A chair is also a great adaption. The exercise can be done seated in chair with the legs extended out in front. Another variation can be accomplished standing behind a chair using the chair back for upper body support or using a wall.

Concluding Thoughts

Providing Pilates workouts for seniors is about options, instead of modifications. Modification is a word in fitness that can have a negative connotation. Instead of teaching exercise with modifications, teach exercises with options. Seniors are able, all exercises should be available to all seniors, the instructor just needs to provide the right options and opportunities.

Joseph Pilates was quoted, “We retire too early and die too young. Our prime of life should be in the 70’s and old age should not come until we are almost 100.” The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to improve our health.

If you are fitness instructor with a desire to train seniors or teach pilates (maybe both!), be sure to head over to our Senior Fitness Training course - as well as our Practical Pilates page.

References:

  • Your Health by Joseph H. Pilates (1934)
  • Return to Life Through Contrologyby Joseph H. Pilates and William J. Miller (1945)

About the Author:

Amy Davis is an AFAA Master Instructor and fitness professional with a wealth of knowledge on all things Group Fitness!

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