The one sure thing that can be said about aging is that it beats the alternative. But can human bodies remain fit and healthy, even as their bones and muscles grow older across the years?
Cathleen Frank answers with a hearty yes. Frank is a longtime Pilates instructor based in La Mesa. She herself is testimonial to that affirmation. She admits to a calendar-years age of 57, and she is as trim and healthy as an adult decades younger. She brings her extensive experience and exercise training to what she terms the “forgotten niche” of seniors at The Pilates Club, which hosts regular classes at 8241 La Mesa Blvd.
“Things must be done very differently with older joints and older bodies,” Frank explains. Frank cites, as an example, the real reasons why elderly persons are liable to fall. They fail to maintain consistent movement, becoming habituated to inactivity, and they increase in size as they gain weight, which makes their bodies even more difficult to move. Fat replaces muscle. Moreover, seniors also lose practice in proprioception, the mental sense of one’s body in relation to environmental surroundings. All of that translates into further negative effects on balance, flexibility, strength and physical capabilities.
The various exercise forms of Pilates are based on smooth-flowing movements, gradual transitions between body positions and slow building of strength and range of motion. According to Frank, though, conventional Pilates exercises are too harsh for those advancing in years.
This overall system of physical fitness was developed by German-born Joseph H. Pilates. After sickly early years, Pilates studied various types of exercise and animal movements to improve his own health, and ultimately to create his new fitness methods incorporating mat exercises, minimal equipment, focus on breathing techniques and emphasis on strengthening core torso muscles that provide support and alignment to the spine for posture and balance. The exercises’ objectives were to improve flexibility, strength and stamina. Pilates first dubbed his system “Contrology” in Europe, but he refined his techniques during the 1920s and 1930s after moving to the United States, and his overall method became associated with his name, to distinguish the exercises he promoted from other controlled body movements.
Those original techniques survive in La Mesa. Another area Pilates instructor, Rebecca Pagdan, owner of Pilates Mind and Body, teaches Classical Pilates to students of all physical skill levels, ranging from their teen years through 89, some relying on walkers. Her small staff includes a couple of physical therapists, and she provides physical therapy consultations. (Her studio accepts no insurance, however.)
Pagdan says that hers was the first Pilates exercise studio in La Mesa, started in 2005 in the Village. Her classes have been offered over the past decade in conjunction with the La Mesa Community Center, some at that location’s meeting rooms. Most are now conducted at her new studio, at 8803 La Mesa Blvd. Pagdan says that over 95 percent of her classes are private, taught individually for one, two or three students. Her studio also offers two or three group sessions each week, which she describes as more social and less expensive than individualized training. Pagdan has entertained thoughts of approaching the La Mesa Senior Center, to offer greater community service to older La Mesans there.
These systems are of lasting impact for younger people as well. Another studio, Club Pilates La Mesa, tells a tale that could have been a permanent tragedy for their client Carrie Angel. She has taken Reformer Pilates classes at the studio for almost two years. A small aircraft accident on Catalina Island in November 2013 broke Angel’s third lumbar vertebra. She was bedridden for most of six months, returning to Pilates exercise classes in September. Her physicians advised her that she would certainly have been much more seriously injured, had Pilates not strengthened her core muscles that supported and protected her spine during the crash landing.
Cathleen Frank calls her revised methods of training, honed for older bodies, “restorative Pilates.” The exercises are designed for persons in their late 50s and above. Frank “shortens the levers” of physical movement by having her students bend elbows and knees, so that their limbs are easier to move and less of a load on the back. She has students lie on their sides to perform the exercises, rather than threatening injuries by lying flat on their backs. Many of her redesigned exercises are to be executed with students seated. And she uses no poses requiring a bend forward from the waist – again, too risky for older spines, in her judgment.
Pat Ryan has taken Frank’s classes for nine years. She grows animated with praise for Frank while describing her personal experiences of better health from the exercises.
“This is almost like individual instruction,” Ryan says. “Cathleen provides corrections and personal attention during the classes. There are fewer injuries. She teaches how to listen to your body, so you don’t get hurt.”
Ryan further notes that her former back pain from arthritis is gone and she can move her back more freely as needed during daily activities. She reports the astonishing fact that she is now taller than her twin sister.
“This changes lives,” Ryan says.
Another student, Patricia Baird, agrees. She has taken Frank’s classes for several years and recounts that the training “has made quite a difference to me in how I approach simple tasks such as pulling weeds, putting away groceries, or making a bed as well as increasing my strength and flexibility. Her message about exercise is too good to keep a secret.”
In a recent “Pilates Fusion” class open to multi-skill-level students, Frank led the group in 45 minutes of guided exercise. All of the students had surprisingly youthful appearances. Frank pointed out one student who is 69 and another who is 76.
Soothing music provided the background, as she assisted her class in prepping their bodies for motions. One minute of slow, deep breathing began the session, “long, luxurious breaths,” as Frank called them.
“We love flow, transitions that are smooth,” she reminded. “Smooth your way into transitions.”
Throughout the class, Frank offered recommended modifications of exercise motions to individual students as she observed them.
Exercises that followed included leg rolls, hip twists, running in place, crisscross stretches and “climbing the mat.” Frank told students to “create your own resistance” with movements, and “put active stretch into it.”
“You want to do this a million more times, until you’re 85,” she said.
Asked about the general philosophy of these exercises, Frank responded, “The goal is to keep the body activated, to become smaller in size and to surround the bones with active, supportive tissue.”
For everybody, but especially for seniors, maintaining constant movement is vital. Core strength in the back and abdominal muscles aids with balance, moving forward, moving backward, lifting, twisting and all functional movements often considered problematic for older persons. Pilates exercises do not single out a muscle area for targeted intense workouts but instead integrate coordinated movements of eight to ten muscles working in conjunction, she said.
“Pilates is not necessarily a workout,” Frank said. “This is awareness training in how to take care of your body, to experience joy with movement and joy with becoming healthy.”
Her students not only gather for the exercise classes but also for hikes and such fun activities as walking tours to smell the blooms in Balboa Park. Frank believes she is creating a “health community” in partnership with her students.
And her counsel on selecting a Pilates instructor? She says to consider the decision to be as difficult and important as choosing a doctor, to check Pilates certifications, to review other students’ results and to “find a good match for you.”
Multiple Pilates exercise opportunities are available throughout La Mesa. Rebecca Pagdan’s studio for Pilates Mind and Body, located at 8803 La Mesa Blvd., can be reached for more information at 619-203-7560. A series of five mat-class sessions there costs $85, with a set of ten going for $150. The three-student “Trio” classes are priced at $215 for five, $385 for ten. “Open Studio” option is for advanced students only, who are assessed as skilled enough to safely work out on their own without supervision.
West Coast Pilates Centre, 5316 Baltimore Drive, can be called at 619-701-9009. This group offers sets of Pilates classes specifically geared for seniors and others for expectant mothers. The price there is $65 for five classes, $96 for eight, ten classes for $110 and 20 classes for $200.
Club Pilates La Mesa, 5907 Severin Drive, 858-900-6517, prices access to their studio sessions at ten classes for $135, with 20 classes going for $250 and eight over one month at $88.
And Cathleen Frank at The Pilates Club, 8241 La Mesa Boulevard, 619-462-7340, features the most affordable options per month, with eight sessions for beginners costing $85, unlimited beginner classes at $115, and advanced students paying $133 for eight or choosing unlimited sessions for $165.
– B.J. Coleman is a freelance writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.