Pilates helps mind, muscles work in harmony

SOFT MUSIC filled the air at Stonehouse last week, as four Pilates students followed their instructor's precise, fluid movements. Each crunch or extension targeted a specific muscle or muscle group. Even breathing was fine-tuned.

Leigh Roberts, a licensed physical therapist and certified Polestar Pilates instructor, led the class. Students' ages ranged from 20s to 50s.


Pilates (pronounced puh-lah-teez) is designed to strengthen the body's "core" muscles -- those in the abdomen, lower back and buttocks. The technique is popular with Hollywood celebrities for its results: a flat stomach and good posture.

"These exercises are designed to strengthen the core muscles, as well the deep back muscles, the hips and the shoulders," Roberts said. "Think of it as strengthening the trunk of your body. Strengthening these muscles will help heal and prevent injuries."


Many of the movements are small and intense.

"With every movement, always focus on the core," Roberts told the class. "Bring the belly button into the spine."

The students lie on their sides, one leg crossed over the other and the bottom leg moving forward and back. Roberts told them to imagine pressing through water. "Pelvis facing forward; imagine a triangle of stability," she said.

When doing a movement called "bridging," the students lie on their backs with their hands on the floor, then arched their backs, supporting themselves only with hands and feet. "Send the energy out the feet and press it long," Roberts said.

"Pilates is not just about exercise," Roberts tells her students. "You can integrate it into your daily lives. Think about your posture when standing or sitting at work. Feel the creasing in your hips as you go for a walk."

Roberts discovered the Pilates method through her work as a physical therapist. Colleagues were using the technique to rehabilitate people with injuries, and Roberts saw the benefits and realized that the exercises could also help people in their daily lives.

"It is a full-body workout where people learn to work multiple muscle groups in coordinated movements," she said. "You work from the inside out. When you have a core strength and core stability, there is an efficiency of movement. With that there is a reduction of injuries."

Roberts taught dance for eight years; she still takes classes and performs around the region. It was her interest in dance and movement that brought her into physical therapy.


"I always enjoyed how the body moves and functions," she said. "I always knew I would go into the health profession. Physical therapy combines my interest in science with my interest in movement."

Her perspective on healing has helped her students.

"I hurt my back in aerobics," said Oakland Mills resident Naomi Livingston, 38. "I had to do physical therapy. I couldn't garden because of the pain. Now it doesn't hurt; the class rejuvenates me."

"I used to teach dancing. I am retired, and I have not exercised for seven years," said Elkridge resident Joan Fergusson, 55, who finished three eight-week sessions and signed up for the next. "This class has a very warm atmosphere. I feel great afterward; I feel taller."

For Long Reach resident Karen Wallem, Pilates has completely changed her life.

"I am a different person to be around," said Wallem, who has been taking the class since March. "After having two knee surgeries, I was just starting to walk without a cane. Then, in December, I slipped and fell on the ice. I hurt my lower back and hip very badly, to the point where I wasn't walking well. I went to a chiropractor and physical therapy -- and those did help. But there is only so much a physician can do. You have to do a lot of this on your own."


She has.

"It's been amazing," Wallem said. "I can now stand straight without pain. Each experience reminds me that I am now pain-free."

The Pilates method was developed in the 1920s by German-born Joseph H. Pilates.

A sickly child who used exercise to become a healthy adult, Pilates devised a unique sequence of movements that worked mind and muscles in harmony, using focused attention to work specific muscle groups. While working as a nurse during World War I, he engineered a way to rig springs on hospital beds to offer light resistance exercises to bedridden patients. After the war, he moved to New York and, in 1926, opened a studio near the New York City Ballet. The dancers were among the first to use the studio.

The Pilates technique can be done on a mat on the floor, or equipment can be added to provide resistance and assist the movements. A simple bendable ring with padding on the sides can be placed between the legs or under the arm to provide resistance. Elastic bands, used for the same purpose, and more complex machines such as the "Reformer," which consists of a cushion on a platform with a pulley system operated by hand or foot, also are used.

"Right now, Pilates is a catch phrase that people hear and want to learn more about," Roberts said. "Stars are doing it because it gives muscle tone without bulk. When you work your deep abdominal muscles, it gives a flatter appearance to your abs. Think of a 50-year-old man with the protruding belly -- there is no muscle tone. If you tone the inner abs, there's a flatter appearance to the stomach without losing weight. But dancers have been doing it for almost 80 years. And I bet it will always stay in the rehabilitation world."


Roberts started teaching one Pilates class a week at Stonehouse in April last year. Her program for introductory to advanced students has grown to four classes a week. Classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays. An eight-week session starts today.

Information: 410-730-8113.