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Pilates for Seniors - The Complete Guide

by Amanda Ghosh June 07, 2017 0 Comments

Looking for a gentle yet powerful way to improve your core strength and posture while gaining flexibility? Pilates for seniors offers exactly that. Plus, it provides an excellent way to stay healthy—particularly when it comes to balance and stability—without pounding the joints. Sometimes referred to as controlology, Pilates is practiced by over 11 million people according to the Pilates Method Alliance, an institution dedicated to the Pilates movement. So, if you’re interested in starting a Pilates regimen and becoming part of the growing Pilates fan base, relax and take a deep breath, because this guide tells you everything you need to know to get started. 

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a fitness program created by Joseph Pilates. It includes a series of exercises that focus on various principles such as precision and control. It improves the body’s core strength, flexibility, balance, and posture. Pilates, like yoga, can be performed with just a mat. However, it can also involve the use of a variety of machines and props. We will walk through these details to help you figure out where and how to start.

Pilates is suitable for all levels—from the beginner to the advanced student. And yes, it is absolutely amazing for the active older adult! In fact, not only is Pilates good for just about anyone, the exercises can be modified to accommodate a variety of conditions.

How to Start Practicing Pilates for Seniors

Step 1. Choose your type of Pilates class.

Pilates for seniors isn’t restricted to a senior’s class. An older adult can take any type of Pilates class they wish to take. It just depends on your preferences and what you are looking to achieve.

To help you figure out what type of class might be best for you, this section lists the common types of Pilates classes and what you can expect to experience if you decide to take one.

Mat Pilates Classes for Seniors

Mat Classes Pilates students fight their own body weight to strengthen their cores during a mat class. ( Image Reference)

Mat classes go through the basic exercises and invite you to apply the principles of Pilates. Even though learning about the principles of the exercise program might not be the most glamorous thing you will do today, the knowledge is essential to possess. And it will be wildly beneficial to have before walking into a class. The advantage of a mat class is that it's you against gravity. While the reformer and tower challenge you, they can also make it easier to cheat. On the mat, you create the work in your body.

What to Expect:

  • A class that is about 45 minutes to an hour long
  • To be on the floor with a mat (double up on the mats if you need more cushion)
  • To use props to help achieve proper head position (if needed)
  • To rely on you! You create the work in your body

Reformer Pilates Classes for Seniors

Reformer Classes Most reformer exercises involve holding yourself steady against the force of the table's springs. ( Image Reference)

Reformer classes involve a table with a foot pad, springs, and a place to lie, hover, or kneel. You use your body weight and the added resistance of springs to get a workout. Many of the movements performed on the mat are performed on the reformer, they are just adapted to work with this apparatus which glides. The advantage of a reformer class is that it provides support while it challenges balance and stability using a moving surface.

In this class, you will:

  • Be able to lie down on a comfortable padded bench or table
  • Get added resistance to work your arms and legs using springs
  • Get a great leg workout

Tower Pilates Classes for Seniors

These classes also have you lying or sitting down on a padded table. The advantage of a tower class is that it uses springs to challenge the body while you lie or sit on a stable surface. The springs add an element of instability which challenges the body safely.

What to Expect:

  • Feel a great workout in your upper back, shoulder girdle and core
  • Improve postural awareness especially with regard to how you hold your shoulders

PiYo Classes and Pilates Fusion

PiYo Classes Pilates Fusion With PiYo, you build core strength from Pilates movements and flexibility from yoga poses. ( Image Reference)

PiYo classes combine Pilates and yoga. Yoga is a great practice for seniors. It's low impact and improves flexibility and balance to reduce the risk of falls. Click here to learn more about the benefits of yoga for seniors. PiYo classes incorporate both mat Pilates exercises and yoga poses. You’ll need to do some research by calling and speaking with the instructor for these classes in advance because the type of yoga incorporated could be just about anything.

What to Expect:

  • The combined benefits of Pilates and yoga
  • The serenity of a yoga class applied to Pilates

Chair Pilates for Seniors

Chair Pilates Classes Chair Pilates reduces the risk of falls and injury so those with balance or mobility issues can safely practice Pilates. ( Image Reference)

Chair Pilates classes are an adaption of Pilates for the active older adult or those with restrictions. It will be similar to Pilates, but the authenticity of the basic Pilates movements will be lessened as the exercises themselves are modified for use with a chair. Nonetheless, this is a terrific option for those requiring a bit more assistance. 

What to Expect:

  • Exercises that have been adapted to use with a chair
  • More assistance than you would find in a typical class

With so many different options to choose from, there’s really a Pilates class for everyone. Reformer and tower classes tend to be more expensive than mat classes because of the equipment involved. And it’s best to be familiar with the exercises before taking a Pilates class that uses the Reformer or Tower. But you don’t have to wait until you’re familiar. If you are going to take a tower or reformer class as your first class, get a private session because there really is a lot to learn off the bat. 

Step 2. Decide on a studio and instructor.

Group Pilates classes The right Pilates studio will be your home away from home. Get to know the instructors to find the perfect fit. ( Image Reference)

Not all studios are created equal and not all instructors know what they are doing. Unfortunately, that’s just how the fitness world is. So you will first want to research your area and find what Pilates studios and classes you have available. Once you find a place to take a class that you like, contact them and inquire about the instructors.

Here’s a list of what you want to ask when you call to be sure you’re finding a high-quality Pilates studio.

  • Have your instructors completed a comprehensive training program? 

You want instructors who have at least 600 hours of training under their belt.

  • What experience do you have working with seniors?

  You want instructors who are comfortable with your unique needs.

  • Do you have equipment and props to assist me in making modifications for some exercises?

You want them to have props available like a bolster to use for modifications so that you can maintain proper alignment and form. 

Consider asking to see the instructors’ certifications and researching the studio on their website

Where to Find Pilates for Seniors:

  • YMCAs
  • Community Centers
  • Health clubs
  • Boutique fitness studios and gyms
  • Pilates-specific studios
  • Retirement communities
  • Religious organizations
  • Local newspapers and magazines that have wellness sections relevant to the community

When you do your research, remember, not all places separate their classes by demographics. So, if they don't offer a Pilates class specifically for seniors, do not be afraid to attend a Pilates class. You're going to find all types of people there!

Step 3. Start with private Pilates lessons.

Three private sessions involving the mat, the tower, and the reformer are sufficient to give you the exposure needed to understand what Pilates is and how to perform the exercises safely and correctly. Plus, private sessions are a great way to learn your body and any modifications the instructor may recommend.

Once you feel ready to move to a group class, here are some steps you can take to prepare. However, you may find that continuing with private sessions is best for you and that’s also a fantastic option!

What to Know Before Beginning Pilates for Seniors

  • What to wear:

Socks! Non-slip material is ideal for performing exercises on the equipment or a mat. Wear clothes that are comfortable but that fit the body. Yoga capris or pants are fine on the bottom. A breathable, lightweight athletic shirt on top is acceptable. Avoid clothes that hang loosely on the body, because you will move and you don't want to be worrying about keeping your clothes in place or having them get caught in an apparatus. 
  • Pilates etiquette:

Pilates is sort of like yoga in the sense that it requires so much concentration, it would be rude for your phone to go off in class. So plan to arrive early to get set up and turn your phone off.
  • Stay hydrated:

Drink a glass or two of water a few hours before class and another cup within a half hour of starting the class. Take sips of water throughout the class, and drink a cup of water after class ends.
  • Eat light: 

Similar to yoga, some people find eating a heavy meal makes them feel sick when doing Pilates. It's best to stick to light meals or snacks before attending class.
  • Warm up:

Warming up helps to ensure your muscles and joints are loose. It also helps to prevent injury.
  • Talk to the Instructor:

Make sure your instructor is aware of any pre-existing conditions you may have.

    The Benefits of Pilates for Seniors

    Obviously, if you are going to invest your time and energy into an exercise routine, you want to be sure that you are going to get results. Well, rest assured. You will see plenty of results with Pilates. And you’ll gain a ton of other great benefits too.

    Reduce aches and pains:

    Pilates strengthens the muscles that enable you to stand taller. As these muscles become stronger they take on more of the weight of the body, which takes the strain off of the joints and helps to alleviate aches and pains. Moreover, Pilates offers a sort of mindful meditation experience as it requires the participant to focus on how the body feels in the moment. This type of meditation has been shown to produce changes in the areas of the brain associated with pain.

    Mind-body connection:

    The movements are very small in Pilates, but to execute them correctly, you need to be thinking. The brain is always on in this exercise program. Your body and mind will learn to work together to execute controlled movements that build strength, flexibility and coordination.This type of exercise takes a large degree of concentration. As a result, your brain experiences positive changes. In fact, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that individuals engaged in mindful movements like those in yoga have superior brain function. This can also be said for Pilates as the movements require remarkable mindfulness. And if that isn't enough, the New York Times published an article that explained how exercising can stimulate the growth of new brain cells while protecting pre-existing cells in areas affecting memory. What better way to stimulate the brain than to engage in some mindful movement?

    Improved posture:

    As you strengthen and engage the muscles involved in supporting proper posture, you develop an awareness of how to properly hold the body.

    Improved breathing & reduced stress:

    Breathing is very important in Pilates because it helps with proper execution of the movements. As your mind works in tandem with your body, and you learn to control your breathing, you will reduce your stress. Not to mention, the intense focus that Pilates requires is a form of mindful meditation which is known to reduce inflammation and help fight conditions like Alzheimer's.

    Weight loss:

    Since many exercises require you to pull your navel toward your spine and hold that position, Pilates helps you to achieve a more toned looking mid-section. If you have tummy weight to lose you won’t see washboard flat abs, but the general shape of your midsection will begin to look more toned.

    Muscle tone and endurance:

    Pilates uses our body weight to develop strength, stamina and endurance. Even if your legs or arms aren’t working, they are “turned on” in Pilates as you squeeze and activate them for proper positioning, support and execution of the exercises. This approach produces strong toned muscles that also have terrific stamina and endurance.

    Increased flexibility:

    In Pilates, the concept of strength and flexibility go hand-in-hand. Joseph Pilates once said, “True flexibility can be achieved only when all muscles are uniformly developed.” The body is a system of pulleys and levers. But we don’t often use it that way when we stretch or even strength train. That isn’t the case in Pilates. The mind-body connection of Pilates revolutionizes flexibility training and helps to correct imbalances leading to improved flexibility.

    Improved functioning of nervous system:

    Pilates wakes up core muscles that hardly ever get used and that are frequently skipped over in mainstream exercises classes. When these muscles awaken, your nervous system fires a chain of messages from the brain to these muscles that has probably been dormant for decades. With this "turning on" of the neuromuscular chains, the brain gains a better sense of control over the body. This is particularly useful as we age because we want to maintain control over how our body moves.

    Prevent injuries: 

    Pilates is low impact so your joints won’t take a beating. It also doesn’t involve a heavy amount of cardio. Plus, with its focus on strengthening the core and teaching the mind and body to work together to achieve flexibility and strength, you’ll be healthier, happier, and less prone to injury overall.

    Slow the progression of osteoporosis, osteopenia & arthritis:

    To prepare for this article, I visited a Pilates studio myself and took several classes. Melanie Quagliata, certified Pilates trainer and instructor at Simply Pilates of Long Island, works with several seniors who take her Pilates classes and she specifically pointed out that Pilates is especially beneficial for those with osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. “As muscles get stronger they take on more of the load of the body weight. This can then take pressure off the joints.” She even explains that there are some studies that show Pilates can slow the progression of osteoporosis and osteopenia. Tracy Hebron, a physical therapist and owner of Simply Pilates, agrees that there is an overwhelming list of benefits achievable through Pilates. She encourages everyone to try it and see what it is all about.

    Principles & Foundations of Pilates

    Pilates is built on a set of principles and foundations. Being familiar with the principles and foundations of Pilates will help you to get the most out of your practice.

    • Breath: Pilates emphasizes the coordination of breath and movement. Each breath is meant to be forceful so that a full inhalation and exhalation can be achieved.
    • Concentration: Pilates is an exercise in mental focus, too. Quality matters over quantity. In Pilates, practitioners care more about what doesn't move than what moves. So your focus on coordinating all movements of the body, including maintaining engagement of the core, is a top priority.
    • Control: Pilates focuses on controlling the movements to maintain proper form. This requires your core to be engaged all the time.
    • Centering: The focus is on the powerhouse in Pilates (i.e. your core, hips and lower back). All movements begin and end with the powerhouse.
    • Flow: This principle is tied to how Pilates builds strength and stamina. The parts of each exercise are meant to flow continuously from one to the other. Just like each exercise is meant to smoothly transition from one to the next. Advanced Pilates is actually a much faster paced exercise program than you would expect.
    • Posture & Alignment: One of the reasons you’re probably interested in Pilates is because it is a phenomenal way to improve posture. If this is the case, then this principle is particularly relevant to you. In order to fix muscle imbalances and achieve proper posture, the body must maintain proper alignment during all movements.
    • Precision: Basically, one perfect movement, executed exactly how it should be, is better than ten “just ok” movements. That’s why you don’t do a lot of reps in Pilates.
    • Relaxation: Your body can do what it needs to do more effectively and with better biomechanics when you are relaxed.
    • Stamina: When the exercises are more accurately executed, and movements flow from one to the next, the body builds stamina and power.

    Foundational Ideas in Pilates:

    • We should use our intuition and listen to our bodies.
    • We have the ability to visualize the physical movements in our mind to help us execute them.
    • Our focus is on the integration of all muscles.
    • No part of the body should be neglected.

    How to Practice Pilates at Home

    If you can't find a Pilates class near you, or would prefer to practice on your own, you can practice from home. 

    However, if possible, it is a good idea to at least take a few private sessions with an experienced professional before starting an at-home Pilates practice. It's an especially good idea if you have issues or conditions that require extra care or modification, because home practice may come with a higher risk for injury. Plus, you may not perform the exercises correctly and this can cause strain and discomfort.

    Consider some further research before getting started. Here are a few resources:

    Pilates Books

      A Pilates book with detailed instructions on the movements is an excellent resource to keep around. Use it to learn and refresh your memory during your home practice. 

      Pilates DVDs

        Ana Cabn is a fabulous Pilates instructor and she has several DVDs. For a beginner-specific DVD try  this one and for a heated core challenge try  this one. (It’s hard!)


          There are plenty of free Pilates videos out there on YouTube, if you'd prefer that route. Here are three links worth checking out:

          The Pilates Ring

            This can be used to make Pilates exercises more difficult. But it can also help you to focus and remain balanced. If you want ideas on how to use this prop, get a Pilates exercise DVD designed for use with the Pilates ring.

            Pilate Balls

              These are great add-ons to increase the difficulty of exercises such as the hundred exercise. It adds weight to your arms as you pump.  Stott Pilates has a few videos that use these weighted balls as props to give you a sense for how you can include them in your workout.

              Beginning Pilates for Seniors: 3 Exercises to Get You Started

              With 34 exercises, Pilates can sometimes seem a bit intimidating. Here are 3 perfect moves for the beginner that focus on core, flexibility, and toning.

              The One Hundred

              1. Lie on your back and bring your knees toward your chest.

              2. Pull the belly button toward the spine and hold it there for the whole movement. Watch to make sure the tummy area doesn't pop up. This engages the core. 

              3. Keeping your arms straight and taut at your sides, begin pumping them. Use a small motion to pump.

              4. Inhale (counting to 5) and exhale (counting to 5). Repeat 10x (or a just few times if you are beginning).

              Single-leg Circles

              1. Lie on your back.

              2. Hold one leg up with toe pointed toward the ceiling.

              3. Move the leg in circles, starting by coming across the body.

              4. Hold you navel pulled in toward your spine and squeeze the leg like you are pulling the skin and muscles tighter to the bone.

              5. Perform 4 circles in each direction, then switch legs. 

              Spine Stretch Forward

              1. Sit up tall.

              2. Extend the legs out in front, keeping toes pointed up and knees bent.

              3. Reach arms out straight in front of you, keeping them at shoulder height.

              4. Tuck your chin to your chest and roll down, bringing your belly button closer to your spine (think about forming the letter C using your body).

              5. Inhale as your curl and exhale as you stretch the body back to the starting position. Repeat 8 times. 

              Start Practicing Pilates for Seniors Today!

              Pilates has truly transformed my fitness and well-being. And it should transform yours—Joseph Pilates was fit well into his 80s thanks to this fitness program. There are a wealth of class options available to the aspiring Pilates student. Pilates for seniors is a great way to stay flexible, reduce aches and pains, and meet new friends in a social environment. Use this resource to help you get started with Pilates. All those who have tried it are blown away by the results, especially by how such little movements can have a hugely positive impact on the body. That being said, with all things related to your health, take your time and do your research. I know you won’t be disappointed once you start. I can’t wait for you to find success with Pilates like I did! I hope this guide was helpful and that you stop by again soon!


              Special thanks to Tracy Hebron and Melanie Quagliata of Simply Pilates for their input and expertise!





              Amanda Ghosh
              Amanda Ghosh

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