As baby boomers move from child-rearing to retirement, they find themselves bombarded by the media with information about osteoporosis. It makes sense, considering that 75 million American men and women age 50 and older in Europe, the USA and Japan have osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia. So between news articles about calcium and vitamin D; along with adverts for medication as well as the benefits of “weight-bearing exercise,” showing up everywhere, we’re all hearing a great deal about this epidemic.
However, nobody seems to agree on the best path to take, the research appears contradictory. The only thing that everyone consistently agrees on is the benefits of exercise for the condition. Not only does exercise help to maintain and build strong bones, but it can improve balance and reflexes and thereby prevent falls, the most dangerous threat to those with fragile bones. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, 60 percent of those who fracture a hip still cannot walk independently a year later. Clearly, the goal should be to stay strong, agile and upright.
As Pilates has gained recognition in the medical and mainstream realms as a beneficial form of exercise to address every concern from back pain to love-handles, boomers have jumped on the bandwagon. Specifically, many have heard that Pilates can be a great bone-strengthening addition to a fitness regime. However if Osteoporosis or Osteopenia is a concern care must be taken when exercising. In particular exercises that require flexion (forward bending) of the spine need to be avoided. This type of movement has been proved (Mayo Clinic 1984) unsafe for those suffering with the condition, increasing the potential for spinal fractures.
So why Pilates? One emphasis within Pilates is the alignment of the body – elongating the spine; aligning it with the pelvis, hips, legs, feet, shoulders and head. What better way to combat slouching than to focus on posture and spinal decompression? Additionally, breathing and concentration are crucial to every exercise. If you are more “grounded” and centered in your mind, your body will respond accordingly, you may even be less likely to trip. Furthermore, balance and control play a large role in the Pilates repertoire, regardless of whether you’re on the mat or using the machines. Pilates is a whole-body experience that promotes symmetry in muscles along with good body mechanics. In addition all exercises emphasize “the core” – the deep stabilizing muscles of the lower back and pelvis, including the deepest layer of abdominals. When those are strong enough to support the body, less effort is needed to maintain an upright (or non-upright) position creating a reduced risk of falling.
So should you avoid Pilates if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia? Certainly not. You do however need to ensure that your teacher is well trained, with experience dealing with various conditions. Consider attending a class that’s geared toward those with the condition, especially if it’s a group. At the very least, avoid the rolling exercises or ones that involve front or side bending and rotation of the spine. Also, while lying on your back, keep your head on the ground, perhaps with a small towel underneath, when others are lifting their heads off the mat. A good teacher will always give this option even for those without bone density issues.
On the positive side, all exercises done lying on your side or stomach, as well as on hands and knees, are excellent to do. Just inform your teacher before class of your situation. Private Pilates sessions are excellent for those with osteoporosis and osteopenia for the reasons mentioned above as well for the increase in flexibility. You just need to be aware of necessary modifications, as well as knowing that your teacher is knowledgeable . The benefits of Pilates are numerous just take responsibility for your condition.