Pilates is a popular type of exercise for many reasons: it is easy for beginners to get into, it doesn’t involve big weights or intense cardiovascular work, it’s easy on the joints, and it has a number of health and fitness benefits. For children and adults with cerebral palsy, exercise of any type may seem daunting. But physical activity and guided exercise can provide just as many benefits for someone with cerebral palsy, if not more. Pilates is particularly well suited to being adapted for people with physical limitations and to improving the symptoms of cerebral palsy while also increasing mobility and range of motion.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is a type of exercise, which although trendy now is actually nearly 100 years old. It was developed by a man named Joseph Pilates in the 1920s. It involves the use of low-impact movements that focus on muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. The focus is on good posture and spinal alignment, balance between muscles, and core strength. Many moves can be done without equipment, but Pilates machines are also utilized to help do certain movements and exercises.
Although it may seem like an intimidating type of workout, Pilates is actually well suited to beginners and those with disabilities and physical limitations. It is easily adapted to all ability levels and can provide a strenuous strength workout for advanced athletes or a gentler workout for beginners, people recovering from injury, or those with physical disabilities.
Benefits of Pilates
Physical activity of any type is beneficial for everyone. As long as workouts are adapted to an individual’s ability level and limitations, exercise improves cardiovascular health, muscle strength, bone density, and so many other areas of the body and mind. Pilates in particular can provide multiple health benefits:
- Greater flexibility
- Improved balance and posture
- Reduced back pain
- Greater strength and stability in the core
- Improved overall muscle strength
- Greater muscle endurance
- Better mental well-being
Controlling Muscle Movements
Children and adults with cerebral palsy and its resulting symptoms can potentially get all of the general benefits of practicing Pilates, but there are also specific benefits to be gained. For instance, a child with cerebral palsy may struggle to control particular muscle movements, like a leg that he may be able to bend or straighten but nothing in between the two extremes.
Guided work on a reformer, a piece of Pilates equipment with a sliding frame, has been shown to help children develop greater control over their movements. An added benefit of working with the reformer is that a child can do these helpful exercises while lying down, often a more comfortable position.
Targeted Trunk Training with Pilates Improves Balance, Stability
A study of young children with cerebral palsy showed that targeting the trunk with physical training and strength training could significantly improve mobility and balance. The children were unable to sit up independently before the study began. They were trained using specialized equipment that targeted the muscles of the trunk and the hip joints. After going through the training for several weeks, all of the children were better able to control movements and could sit and balance independently.
While this study did not use Pilates movements specifically, other studies have shown that Pilates training can improve strength and posture stability in the trunk. Children who are able to participate in Pilates have the potential to improve this kind of stability so that they can sit up more easily, be more stable and balanced, and have greater control over their movements.
Improving Posture, Balance, and Strength
A few studies, such as those described above, have shown that Pilates can help children and adults with cerebral palsy in several specific ways. There are also many individual stories that serve as anecdotal evidence. Both adults and children with physical limitations have benefited from practicing Pilates. Adults describe gaining greater strength, posture, and balance between muscles that were previously weaker or stronger than others.
Stories also abound of children who used Pilates movements in physical therapy to see marked benefits. They are able to walk better and more independently, have greater range of motion in joints, and have greater muscle strength in muscles that were once weak and difficult to control. The improvements in strength, balance, flexibility, and posture all help reduce pain as well.
Mental Health and Body Image
In addition to all the physical benefits that an individual with cerebral palsy may experience, there are also emotional and mental benefits of practicing Pilates. For a child who struggles with pain and movement, the improvements that come with exercise can be empowering. They give a child, or an adult, a sense of greater control, achievement, and even relaxation with less stress. Pilates has also been shown to promote a positive body image in all types of people, those with and without disabilities.
Trying Pilates for the First Time
It is recommended that anyone, with or without disability, try Pilates with the guidance of a trained instructor. The movements look simple, and they generally are, but it is easy to do them incorrectly. Many of the poses and movements are very precise and it benefits individuals to have an instructor to correct and guide form. This is especially true for someone with cerebral palsy.
Be sure to find an instructor who has experience adapting Pilates exercises for individuals with disabilities or physical limitations. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for recommendations. Many hospitals, medical centers, and physical therapy centers now offer in-house classes for Pilates and other types of exercises, so start with your medical team to find out how you can safely get started with Pilates.
Pilates is just one type of exercise that can benefit all types of people. For someone with the limited movement that results from cerebral palsy, this is a particularly powerful type of exercise that can be used also as a type of therapy. The guided and adapted movements help to improve range of motion, flexibility, strength, muscle balance, and posture. They also help reduce pain and improve overall well-being and promote self-confidence. Be sure to get guidance from a professional and experienced instructor or therapist and then enjoy the many benefits of Pilates.