Originally published June 18, 2005, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.
Exercise can be a tedious chore. That’s probably why so many Americans don’t do much of it. In bigger cities, health clubs recognize this and try to offer unusual options to attract members. Spinning, kick boxing and even stripper-cise are all examples of recent fitness trends that professionals have tried to cash in on.
I started doing yoga when the most-recent craze hit town about five years ago, and for two years, I was a yoga fanatic — who knew you could get such a great workout by breathing and stretching?
Classes have never been my thing. I always find that I’m the least coordinated or fit person in the class, and I rarely have the stamina to make it to the end. But when I was in my yoga craze, I craved more instruction. I tried every class related to yoga offered by my gym — cardio yoga, power yoga and even something called Pilates.
Sadly, the experience wasn’t as rewarding as I hoped. The yoga craze had created a monster, and most of the hybrid classes weren’t really yoga at all, at least not the type of yoga I learned and was growing to love.
I had been told Pilates was the same as yoga, only it focused more on the core muscles of the abdomen and back. I didn’t have any luck in the Pilates class either. The moves were very difficult and fast. I tried the classes twice a week. But after a month of leaving with a sore neck and back, I gave up and figured I was just too big to do it.
It wasn’t until I started reading more about Pilates that I realized that the instructor I had wasn’t teaching true Pilates. Created by Joseph Pilates, a performer and boxer in the early 1900s, the exercise form has been widely used by dancers. His goal was to give people who were injured the ability to exercise their muscles. Pilates incorporates controlled breathing with controlled movements to offer a total-body strengthening workout with minimal risk of injury.
Part of the reason the risk of injury is low is that Joseph Pilates also invented an array of contraptions to help people do his exercises correctly and safely.
When I was preparing to have gastric-bypass surgery, I picked up a Pilates DVD. Many gastric-bypass patients swear by Pilates. Patients who have open procedures (a 4- to 7-inch midline incision) aren’t usually allowed to do standard abdominal exercises, because they are at risk of incisional hernias. Pilates is a way to exercise their abs and back without injuring themselves.
Though I could tell the instructor on the DVD knew what she was doing, I still had difficulty. Controlled breathing is very important in Pilates. It’s so important that if you can’t breathe properly, there’s really no benefit to doing the exercises.
My problem with the DVD was that if I was concentrating on my breathing, I couldn’t figure out the moves. But if I concentrated on my movement, I couldn’t maintain the breathing. I turned off the video and shelved what I figured would be another $20 down the drain.Fast forward four months. Bored with my exercise routine, I started to feel that no matter how much I was exercising, my fitness level was dropping.
I decided it was time to visit my personal trainer to see if she could help me rework my routine.She asked me if I wanted to try something called the Reformer. The Reformer is an exercise machines invented by Joseph Pilates.Apparently, the gym had recently bought one, and the trainer was eager to use it. I looked at it, gulped and told her I would. To be truthful, I wanted to say no. The machine looked like a medieval torture device. But just recently I wrote a column about wanting more adventure, and the Reformer seemed like a good place to start.We started by taking off our shoes, and the trainer showed me how the machine worked.
Joseph Pilates constructed the original Reformer by taking apart a hospital bed. The platform glides back and forth. Springs attached to the base govern the resistance provided for each exercise. There are a variety of straps and pulleys that attach to the springs as well.At first, I just sat on the platform to get a feel for its movement. Once I was comfortable with that, I laid on the platform, and my trainer coached me through Pilates breathing. The breathing technique can be difficult to master. It involves pulling in your navel toward your spine and breathing into your lower belly.
Once I seemed to have a grasp on that, and keeping my spine in a neutral position, I actually started doing some exercises. The exercises were difficult because of the level of control needed to perform them as slowly as the Pilates method demands. When breathing correctly, I would be dripping with sweat. When my body began to cool, I realized that I needed to correct my breathing.
After the workout, I was spent. I’m sure to those around me, it didn’t look like I did much. But I felt it for six days. It was truly an Abs of Steel workout.
Since the exercise session, I have become like a convert, preaching the Gospel to the world. I tell everyone that Pilates done right is the best workout around. It’s a mental and physical challenge that leaves you feeling rejuvenated and exhausted all at the same time.