Twice a week, I take a Pilates Reformer class at my gym. The "Reformer" is a big, lightly padded board on wheels, with levers, pulleys, weights, and other components, all employed without the benefit of a user's manual. It was either invented by Mr Pilates, the same person who invented people like Madonna, who is one of his disciples, or, it might have been invented by some unnamed person who wanted to "reform" what Mr Pilates invented, since regular Pilates consists of human beings working out on the floor, whereas this gives a person thousands of dollars worth of apparatus to insert between the floor and one's body.
I choose to take Reformer classes instead of regular Pilates, because when I tell people I do "Reformer Pilates" they have no idea what I am talking about and so are completely impressed. They assume it is some advanced form of Pilates, known only to Victoria Beckham and other anointed individuals. The exact opposite is true. Reformer means no working on the floor, which is much easier. And, because space is limited due to the size of the machines, it also means much smaller classes, affording either individual attention or, on really good days, some kibitzing among participants that can waste some time.
There is a lovely, older woman in my Reformer class. She is in her eighties and brings her portable oxygen equipment with her. I am not making this up. I like having her in class, because she needs extra time to arrange her oxygen whenever we switch position, and this corresponds exactly with the extra time I need to figure out what the instructor is talking about, since I am usually initially facing the exact opposite way that everyone else is.
One day last week, the sweet older woman suggested to me that I take a class called "Body Flow," which is, like regular Pilates, included in gym membership. She takes Body Flow once a week and Reformer once a week. It works perfectly for her. She said Body Flow allows people to work at their own level. This sold me. First off, I like the phrase "Body Flow." And it has the added advantage of being something else that others are unfamiliar with when I tell them what I do at the gym.
I took the Body Flow class a couple days later. There were about 20 women in the room, whose combined weight equaled one large meal. Our equipment consisted of a mat the thickness of a good quality paper towel. I should add that the sweet older woman wasn't there. Aside from two grey-haired women who each looked like when they are not at the gym they are hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was old enough to be everyone else's mother.
The instructor started with the following words: "We have a really, really tough workout planned today! Get ready! We will twist our bodies around in all kinds of ways that human bodies are not meant to twist! This will be brutal!" I scanned the room. Apparently, these words were greeted as positive, since everyone around me looked like hyenas just presented with a fresh zebra kill.
The instructor proceeded by throwing out names of positions in rapid-fire manner. Most of them involved animals. To me, everything sounded like "The Down Dirty Dog," except for the one called either "Ape" or "Gorilla," which involved bending over from a standing position and placing the entire palms of one's hands under one's feet.
After awhile, I really wasn't paying much attention. I sort of slumped down on my mat and wondered why an 80-something year old woman with portable oxygen equipment would do this to me. Isn't there some kind of rule that when people get to be a certain age they can't screw around with your life?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you've been idle for a while, it's important to see a doctor before getting active again, says Dr. Alexis Colvin, an orthopedic surgeon at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. You want to make sure you don't have any pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, that might present a problem when you start up your new exercise regimen.
Getting active too quickly, often with incorrect form, is one of the primary reasons people over 50 find themselves in her office, Colvin says. It's important to slowly build a base level of strength, flexibility and fitness before pushing yourself to, say, sign up for that marathon.
It's always helpful to have a little direction and support in starting something new. Colvin suggests getting started with a personal trainer or physical therapist to tailor an exercise program to your goals.
Low-impact activities, such as swimming or using the elliptical, are all good for people who have joint pain, says Dr. Colvin. If it hurts, don't push it!
An active lifestyle isn't limited to throwing on some running shoes and hitting the pavement. Dr. Colvin suggests yoga and pilates, which can help with strength and flexibility even if they don't give you the same cardiovascular workout you might get from the treadmill.
Colvin also points to the many home exercise videos available, which can be a great alternative for those who would prefer to exercise from the comfort of their living rooms. The one drawback, she says, is potential for injury from using incorrect form, "since there's no one watching you."
Mix up your routine and consider cross-training (adding swimming and biking to a running program) to prevent boredom, avoid repetitive injuries and improve your overall condition. Exercise with friends to add social benefits to the physical and mental advantages of your workout. Recognize your limits, adjust accordingly and enjoy the quality-of-life benefits of an active lifestyle for many years to come.
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