Exercise Safety in Pilates Class and Beyond

by | Apr 16, 2013 | I Want to be a Pilates Teacher, Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 1 comment

Hazard SignI find it so interesting how the Universe gifts us with new opportunities to learn and grow…  Since writing the recent series of articles on mobilizing the ribcage, I’ve had the privilege to start working with not one, but TWO new clients who have Harrington Rods.

For those of you reading this article who are unfamiliar with the term, historically this rod has been surgically implanted along the spinal column to treat scoliosis.  Once you’re spine has been “shored up” with a rod, there is no longer movement at those vertebrae.    For these clients everything that is needed to maintain normal “healthy” movement of the spine and ribs becomes moot.   All the great benefits of Pilates posterior lateral breathing for elongation of the spine to maintain healthy posture has to be re-thought and re-taught because try as you might, the ribcage and spine won’t be moving.  That doesn’t mean the muscles along the spine aren’t active – we still need to maintain good strength and support.  But everything becomes quite different from a cuing, exercise selection and exercise safety standpoint.

This leads me to recall the last experience I had with a Pilates class participant and a fused spine…

Many years ago, I subbed an Intermediate Pilates Mat class at the gym I was working at.  “Assuming” all my students were healthy, because not one of my participants piped up before class when I asked if there was anything I needed to know before we started, I proceeded to teach a moderately paced high intermediate level mat class.  Some of the exercises we did that day included the Advanced One Leg Circle with a Twist, Rolling Like a Ball, Open Leg Rocker, Saw, Rocking Swan, Corkscrew with a twist, Neck Pull, Seal…It was a pretty dang good class!

The next day when I was chatting with the regular instructor, she said, “was Mark in class yesterday?”  (not his real name…)  Since there are never very many men in class, “Mark” was easy to identify!  Yes, he was there.  And then she said, “Isn’t in amazing that he can move so well after his accident.  He broke his back and has a full rod up his spine!”

I was horrified!!!!! Knowing all the exercises he had done in a group class that I would have NEVER had him do if I’d known more about his health history!  Mark survived the experience, and didn’t really want to have “limits” placed on the exercises he should and shouldn’t do.  This is fine if he’s the one making all the decisions, because it will be his own fault if he gets hurt.

But if you’re paying a professional for advice to keep you safe, healthy and injury-free, it can be wise to pay attention and take heed of what you’re being told.  Personally, attending a group mat class would not even be an option if I had a chance to vote.  There are so many better exercises choices that could be made for him, and too many Matwork exercises to modify.

It’s our job as Pilates teachers and health experts to educate you on the ins and outs of making wise exercise choices.  If you actually understand why you’re doing something, or why you need to avoid particular exercises from a safety standpoint, there’s a better chance you’ll be compliant, and learn to listen to and respect your body for better health!

With that said, I’ve also got to say, that if you don’t like the recommendations you’ve been given as guidelines by any health professional, it’s always more than appropriate to seek out a second, third, fourth….as many additional professional opinions as you need to feel confident that the path you’re on is most appropriate for you.

I’ve chosen to share this “scary” story in my own Pilates teaching experience to illustrate a point.  If you have a healthy body, healthy movement involves appropriate sequential articulation thorough the spine from the tailbone to the base of the skull.  By maintaining the appropriate balance between strength and flexibility we can maintain  both healthy movement habits and whole-body health.

But if segments of your spine are fused or you have a rod spanning multiple segments, movement may not be as important as stabilization for your back.  In fact, forcing movement may only cause the segments above and below what’s been fused to become overworked, unstable and lead to the need for additional surgical “shoring up.”  And I’m sure more pain and the need for additional surgeries is NOT the goal of your exercise program.

If you’re a participant in the exercise classes of life and happen to have back pain,  a fusion, disc problems, scoliosis, osteopenia or osteoporosis, a Harrington rod, (or ANY other physical, or medical health condition) PLEASE do not keep this information private.  Your instructors are there to ensure you have a fun, safe and enjoyable experience.  Without the right information we as teachers and health professionals cannot use our expertise to make the best choices for you to leave your class or training session healthier than you arrived!

And if you happen to be a Pilates teacher, Yoga teacher or other fitness professional and find yourself facing a similar situation as I did, but your participants are kind enough to tell you what you need to know before class begins…  If you know you can keep everyone safe – dive in and do your thing!  If you have even a hint of fright, or feel out of your league to handle the situation or know what exercises someone can do safely and which may cause harm, err on the side of caution, and ask them NOT to participate today.  Refer these eager-to-exercise “special-needs” clients to the most appropriate classes, or better yet, encourage one-on-one training with a teacher who has the skills, knowledge and expertise to best meet their needs.  (This person may even be you, just not in a group class situation!)

Personally I would rather disappoint, (and earn the respect) of a client by turning them away from class and referring them to a safer program, or more qualified professional because it’s in their best interest, than risk having them get hurt.

Please take note, this little exercise safety announcement today is not meant to piss anybody off, but is in the interest of ensuring that everyone, regardless of your current health status, has the opportunity to enjoy and embrace improving their health and fitness.  Everyone CAN and should learn to develop healthy movement habits with the right exercises that are most appropriate for you!

Stay Safe, Respect & Listen to Your Body – Be Wise and Be Well.

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Pope-Handy

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. I had surgery for scoliosis, with Harrington Rods, when I was 13 (in 1972). At the time, my doctor told me this: no skydiving, no bowling, no golfing, and watch your weight. Not a whole lot of help. Much later I learned (after doing it) that I shouldn’t have skied. Today I was wondering if I should give pilates a try, or if it would be a bad idea because of the rods. Looks like perhaps this isn’t a good way for me to exercise. My point is that it is very likely that the person in your class may not have been given a very good set of guidelines and may simply not know if the program you’re running is advisable or not. Thank you again!


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