Balancing act

Try Pilates for systematic improvements and better aging

By Natalia Tikhonova, Pilates Instructor

We all know that youth doesn’t last forever. At some point in life we start experiencing changes in our balance, strength and flexibility. As we age, the maintenance of these three fitness components becomes paramount. Many people around the age of 50 increase their focus on strength and flexibility but neglect balance. Working on your balance, however, must be addressed with the same attention.

Pilates can help. Current research suggests that Pilates exercises have a positive effect on improving balance and coordination in the general adult population. Better balance means fewer falls and fewer injuries.

So how does Pilates help maintain and improve our balance?

First, it’s important to understand that balance is a complex physiological phenomenon. Recently developed models acknowledge multiple systems that contribute to human balance—vestibular, visual, somatosensory, musculoskeletal, and motor. When training to improve our balance, all of these must be targeted.

Let’s take a look at each of these systems and how Pilates can help.

Vestibular system

This system, also called the vestibular labyrinth, is part of the inner ear and interacts with other parts of the body—including our eyes, bones and joints—
to help maintain our body’s balance.

Moving through various Pilates exercise positions—for example, from supine to prone, from side-lying to quadruped, from quadruped to kneeling, from kneeling to standing—can help train our vestibular system and improve its ability to coordinate with our somatosensory and musculoskeletal systems.

Visual system

This system has a strong impact on balance. We all know that when you close your eyes it’s harder to maintain balance. Try this by placing your feet together and shutting your eyes. Do you feel more or less stable?

Although not many exercises encourage keeping our eyes closed, one way to train our visual system is to focus our sight on the horizon as we progress through Pilates movements. Maintaining good balance requires constant coordination between our eyes, our limbs, and our head. Pilates strengthens the connections between these body parts and leads to positive improvements in our visual system and balance.

Somatosensory system

This system consists of different sensory receptors that send input to the brain. Each joint is loaded with mechanoreceptors, which respond to mechanical stimuli, while each muscle has stretch receptors that are responsible for its lengthening or contracting.

By doing Pilates exercises barefoot and on a gliding platform, we can stimulate our sensory receptors much better than doing exercises wearing shoes on solid ground.

Musculoskeletal system

Our muscular strength and our skeletal alignment do the work of providing us with coordinated movement. When we strengthen and stretch our muscles, we create more support and stability for our bodies. In Pilates, we often focus on postural support and stability. When our bones are aligned properly, our weight is distributed evenly through our skeleton. This facilitates balance.

Motor system

Pilates is loaded with exercises that improve motor control by emphasizing slow, well-coordinated movements. This smooth execution requires coordinated input from all our systems, and all together contribute to better balance.

As the aging process begins, Pilates can provide important benefits that will help you stay healthy and happy through middle age and beyond.

As published in the November/December 2019 issue of WAC Magazine

—Posted November 29, 2019

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