Written by Liana Mauro for the January 2013 edition of Austin Fit Magazine.
Exercise and Aging
By Liana Mauro | December 27, 2012 | 6:08:PM
Aging is inevitable. We can eat perfectly, get the perfect amount of sleep, and do everything “right,” but nothing—no matter how calculated and deliberate—can stop the clock. What we can do, however, is control how we spend each tick of that clock.
All of us have interesting relationships with fitness. We have periods of great discipline and stretches of weakness where motivation and results lag. When we look at the whole picture, our fitness ebbs and flows; there are times when we feel strong and perform at our best and other times of setback, injury, or fatigue. Respecting the body and its needs can be the difference between aging gracefully and falling apart.
When we are young, our bodies can handle a great deal. We like pushing to see how much we can handle and as we get older, that threshold often decreases. Enough stress over time, be it physical, mental, or emotional, can cause a breakdown. In the case of our bodies, bone density decreases, cartilage breaks down, and even our muscles shrink. What, then, is the point of exercise if these things happen anyway? Why add additional stress? The exciting news is that the right types of activity will help decrease the speed of these processes and can even help decrease or eliminate pain you might already be experiencing.
What if I don’t Exercise?
It’s never too late to start. Fitness happens for different people at different times and, no matter when you begin, you will reap its benefits. A sedentary lifestyle is damaging; if you’re not feeling as spry as you once did and are considering beginning an exercise regimen, make a decision to change. The key is taking up the right form of exercise for your age, ability, and fitness level. If you haven’t been exercising regularly and are in your 40s or 50s, beginning a running routine or other high-impact activity could significantly increase the likelihood of injury. Beginning with a low-impact form of cardiovascular activity and a strength training program that promotes joint health, balance, flexibility, and restoration of muscular imbalances will help decrease the chance of injury as you increase activity levels.
Pilates provides exactly these things. The founder, Joseph Pilates, famously said, “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.” He said this at the age of 86. In my 15 years of practicing and teaching Pilates, I absolutely agree: it is a truly comprehensive form of fitness: everything improves, regardless of your age. Most of my clients range in age from mid-30s to early 60s and feel more energized and have less joint and low back pain; their lives are fundamentally better.
I’m an Athlete. Why do I need Pilates as I get Older?
Athletes age, too, regardless of their fitness levels. In fact, given the repetitive stress placed on athletes’ bodies and the lack of recovery time between training sessions, they can become increasingly prone to injury as they age. Including a restorative, well-balanced, preventative practice within a training program will help the already active person stay active.
While many athletes are increasingly adding practices such as Pilates and yoga into their training regime, there are many who do not. Athletes, whose training time is already precious, commonly feel as though they cannot add another thing to their list. Worse, they are reactive (waiting for an injury to arise) rather than preventative (taking an initiative to work to stop injuries ahead of time). Aging is a stress of its own and when extra stress is added—such as weight training, hours of cycling, marathon training, or any other energy-demanding activity—the body begins to break down. Just as recovery is important, prevention is equally so.
Athletes commonly downplay pain, ignoring signs that their bodies aren’t functioning optimally. Symptoms should not be ignored, especially as we age. Just as we take our cars to get serviced when the “check engine” light comes on, it’s important to pay attention when our bodies flash the same warning. Don’t wait; address those signs now. And if you have an existing injury, be sure to face it head on.
What Pilates Is (and What it Isn’t)
A large number of people are confused about what Pilates is despite its rise in popularity over the years, and there are several common misconceptions: it’s strikingly similar to yoga; it’s all abdominal work; it’s all stretching. While these are components of Pilates, these in no way encompass the entirety of what Pilates is.
While Joseph Pilates pulled from yoga movements to create Pilates, he also drew inspiration from weight training, wrestling, gymnastics, boxing, skiing, and even swimming. This is why Pilates provides the practitioner with the flexibility of yoga, the coordination and grace of gymnastics, the strength of boxing and skiing, and the stamina and core strength of swimming. This is a system that provides extremely well rounded fitness results.
Another common misconception about Pilates is that it is all abdominal work; Joseph Pilates would be appalled if he saw a Pilates class only working the front of the body, as the entire premise of his form of movement is balance. Simply put: Work the back of the body as much as the front and move the spine through all planes of movement. A well-structured Pilates program is a full body workout with emphasis on alignment and the practitioner’s goals, not a series of abdominal exercises.
Another idea about Pilates is that it is nothing but stretching. The stretching found in Pilates is different, working a muscle first concentrically (in a shortened position) and then eccentrically (in a lengthened position). Studies have shown that this is a safer and more effective way of stretching. Holding stretches for extended periods of time and going “deeper” into the stretch can lead not only to imbalances within the body but can cause permanent damage to ligaments as well as instability in the joints.
Related to this is the commonly held belief that people who are inflexible are unable to begin a Pilates program, which is similar to saying, “I’m out of shape so I can’t exercise.” Whether flexible or inflexible, in the best or worst shape ever, injured or injury-free, Pilates is the ideal form of fitness for most people to incorporate into their fitness regimens in order to remain active, injury-free, and feeling good while aging.