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Listen to your body

SPORTSMEN use it; tennis stars and weekend golfers use it. Actors and dancers, too. Pilates is a method of controlled exercise that "works from the inside out". It is not aerobics, done to deafening music; it is a progressive series of stretches. Think slow movements, think soothing sounds — which you find in any Pilates studio. I took it up when my husband, after a brief fling with aerobics, wanted to move on and was keen that I should do something, too.

A teacher of Pilates (pronounced pil-lah-tess, no relation to Pontius) started classes in my area, and, having heard about improved posture and overall fitness, we had a preliminary assessment and a "one-to-one", a solo session with the expert. We are not sporty types — a walk or a swim is about it — but our one-hour class has become a fixture of every week. Being mature retirees, we hope through exercise to avoid hip operations and the like.

"Oh, that was good!" resounds at the end of a session after any break (Christmas holidays, for instance). That hour of deep stretches reminds tight muscles of their capabilities until the whole body feels that it has been massaged. It hasn’t: we’ve done the work ourselves, under the careful eye of the instructor.

She encourages each individual to "listen to your body". In other words, don’t force the pace or try to stretch your hamstrings as far as you think your neighbour is stretching hers, or his. The instruction is hands-on, in the sense that the teacher walks about the class, correcting an arm, leg, shoulder or head into the right attitude. Shallow breathing is discouraged.

After a few months, Pilates students begin to look as if they have lost weight when posture improves. Flexibility, balance, and strengthening are bonuses for seniors, as is the lure of increased bone density.

One Pilates teacher has a client aged 94. "I can’t cure his emphysema," she said, "but the work enhances his mental well-being, increases his core strength, and helps to conserve his energy." GPs frequently refer patients for remedial help with everything from back problems to repetitive strain injury.

German-born Joseph Pilates (1880-1967), having been a sickly child, devoted himself to improving his overall well-being — he trained detectives at Scotland Yard from 1912 until the war, then trained fellow inmates at the internment camp. He believed that achieving fitness involves both body and mind. It’s true that when you submit to the sequences he laid down you are not thinking about shopping lists or dental appointments: you give yourself entirely to the discipline of the moment, be it tilting your pelvis or stretching like a cat.

In our class we do mainly mat work, lying down. We wear T-shirts, jogging trousers or shorts, either barefoot or in socks. Twelve is the maximum number (we’re usually eight). Fees are between £5 and £12 a session. Your local library or newspaper should be able to pinpoint a Pilates class near you. At every age, it’s a good way of helping yourself.

For further information on national standards for Pilates contact: Skillsactive, 020 7632 2000,

  www.skillsactive.com

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