Can Pilates Roll Away the Blues?

June 28, 2011

by Leah Stewart, MS

Last year, a new client of mine confessed that due to her chronic pain she would regularly sit in a chair and stare into nothingness for hours at a time. I instantly thought, Am I out of my league here? Should I be referring her to a psychologist? It became extremely clear to me that she was realizing that her physical pain was beginning to have a deeper, more serious effect on her mood, psyche and ability to lead a productive life. I knew that she was in pain (that is after all why she started doing Pilates), but I saw a fighter, a woman who committed to walk into the studio three times a week, and always had a brave face on and a surprisingly positive attitude. I admired her ability to dig deep and not get lost in her sadness, so I committed myself to her cause and together we began to explore Pilates’ ability to correct her muscle imbalances and improve her function. And through rolling, stretching, strengthening and bending, her pain began to heal and her depressive symptoms began to reverse.

There is an intimate relationship between pain and depression, and research shows that depression affects the body as much as it does the mind. Pain can be depressing and depression causes and exacerbates pain. In my client’s case, her chronic pain was causing her to slip into depressive behavior, and luckily she recognized it and refused to allow it to pull her down completely. My experience with her got me thinking about how, why and if Pilates could actually serve as a complementary—if not the sole—treatment for those suffering from mild depression.

I discovered that one in eight women develop depression at some point in their life, and women suffer from depression twice as much as men. I bring these statistics to light because Pilates is more popular and practiced among women, which means it could potentially serve as an excellent treatment option for women dealing with depression. Depression can lead to changes in appetite, insomnia, anxiety, an overwhelming loss of energy, a withdrawal from others and unexplained pain in the lower back, neck and joints.

Pain and depression feed on each other; when one persists the other becomes increasingly difficult to treat and the hopes of recovery may seem futile. The problem resides in the brain pathways and the pain that is reflected in the circuitry of the nervous system. The nervous pathways that are presided over by the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine travel up the brain where they regulate mood and thinking. Interestingly, these same neurotransmitters also have pathways that descend down the spinal cord where they deflect signals of discomfort and suppress pain. Depression, as well as chronic pain, can alter the function and communication of these pathways within the brain and the nervous system. And when these pathways fail to operate efficiently, both physical pain and feelings of depression are intensified.

So how can we use Pilates to help rectify the relationship between pain and depression? With Pilates, we can help to break the cycle of pain and depression through creating muscular balance, improving mobility and by generating a functional body that can move with efficiency, control and intention. Research has found that exercise of any kind (aerobic and non-aerobic) can play significant role in the management of depression through physiological changes that show improvements of endorphin and monoamine concentrations. Research also suggests that positive feedback from others, social contact, the mastery of a new skill, and the diversion from negative thoughts are important mechanisms in how exercise can help with depression. Although there are no specific studies on the effects of Pilates relate to depression, when an individual practices Pilates principles and exercises, he or she can potentially treat pain and depression.

In a society that relies too heavily on drugs for a cure-all, and with the negative side effects of these drugs, I believe that individuals are justified in exploring the effects that a regular Pilates practice may have on pain and depression. What do you think?


Pilates and Stress Management

May 3, 2011

How stress affects your health and helpful techniques to stay slim, fit and feeling good

by Leah Stewart

Stress is a reality of everyday life. While nerve-racking situations are difficult to avoid, our chances of remaining healthy and feeling good greatly depend on how we manage, cope with and recover from stress. In order to combat the effects of stress, we must understand the role it plays in our physical health.

Clients come into a Pilates studio seeking the numerous physical benefits that are associated with the method. What they might not realize at first is that the physical benefits of a consistent and meaningful Pilates practice can go well beyond external body aesthetics. I have learned, through studying with and teaching for BASI Pilates, that stress reduction is a profound benefit of a regular Pilates practice. Pilates helps to ease the effects of stress through the implementation of its central principles: breathing techniques, body awareness, relaxation, concentration, mindfulness, balance and harmony.

Many professionals in the health industry—both medical and fitness—work with patients and clients that often express frustration with symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, muscle loss, weakness and depression. A high-stress lifestyle and an inability to self-manage stress is a major contributing factor to these symptoms. We must ask ourselves the following questions: How much stress and what types of stress do we have in our lives? How do we handle and recover from these stresses? Exploring and discovering the answers to these questions can significantly change how we remedy these physical symptoms.

When we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol (via our adrenal glands). When secreted in normal amounts, cortisol gives us baseline energy throughout the cycle of a day. Cortisol is also reserved to help us meet the challenges of acute stressors. When we feel threatened, the adrenal glands release cortisol, setting the body into a “fight or flight” mode. Cortisol secretion appropriately alters metabolic function through the release of stored sugar into the blood stream for quick energy. Cortisol also acts in suppressing immunity functions and increasing heart rate and blood pressure.

The release of cortisol is meant to be a short-term response to stress. When released during stressful situations, cortisol helps the body return to its stress-reduced state. Unfortunately, if we are in a state of chronic stress—without any appropriate time for rest and recovery—the adrenal glands become overworked and no longer appropriately supply our bodies with its baseline of energy. This can lead to a host of unpleasant effects, including:

  1. Impaired metabolism and digestion, causing increase in appetite; accumulation and storage of body fat (particularly around the abdomen area); and weight gain
  2. The destruction of healthy muscle and bone, which contributes to weakness and fatigue.
  3. Increased blood pressure
  4. A weakened immune system and slower healing processes
  5. The impairment of chemicals that are needed to make other hormones (i.e. serotonin).
  6. Fatigue

Medical professionals prescribe lifestyle changes that promote stress reduction to those patients suffering from chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. One specific prescription is the integration of a regular, moderate exercise program. Other stress management techniques include breathing exercises, imagery, meditation and self-awareness. Pilates is a form of exercise that improves the functional strength and flexibility of muscles and bones, has the ability to slim your waistline and helps to correct posture. As previously mentioned, a meaningful and consistent Pilates practice opens the possibility for a permanent lifestyle transformation. Next time you feel stressed, try implementing and focusing on the following into your Pilates practice:

Breathing techniques

Breathing is the life force of the Pilates method. Breath promotes focus, oxygenates the blood, improves circulation and encourages relaxation.

Imagery

The use of imagery fuels creativity. The visualization used in Pilates imagery helps to calm the mind and encourage concentration providing better movement and anatomical understanding.

Concentration and Mindfulness

Concentration and mindfulness helps keep distracting and stressful thoughts at bay. With the promotion of precision in movement through concentration and mindfulness, individuals will experience advancement in movement clarity and execution. Confidence and a positive sense of well-being can be directly improved.

Body Awareness

The use of imagery, concentration, and mindfulness in Pilates will improve body awareness. Body awareness heightens a conscious communication between body and mind. Awareness allows for strong self-perception and self-management of what is and is not productive for the body both physically and emotionally.

Meditation and Harmony

With the combined efforts and integration of breathing, imagery, concentration, mindfulness and body awareness, a Pilates practice can transform into a meditation practice that can help promote the maintenance of a balanced and harmonious lifestyle. A Pilates session is a sacred time for oneself to place everything else aside several times a week and engage in an energizing and relaxing meditation of body, mind and spirit.

Pilates is certainly not the sole remedy, nor a cure all, for a lifestyle consumed with chronic stress. It is, however, one of many positive agents that assist in making permanent lifestyle changes that include physical activity, relaxation and meditation. Most importantly, the true nature of Pilates is one of dynamic balance and harmony, making Pilates a positive way to reduce stress—and opening the gateway for successful efforts in staying slim, fit and feeling good.