Pilates and Parkinson's

Pilates is a gentle and effective exercise regime that you can tailor to help with some of the movement difficulties you might experience with Parkinson’s. Physiotherapists Bhanu Ramaswamy and Sarah Sessa explore some of the benefits of pilates for people with Parkinson’s.

Pilates is a low impact, controlled exercise regime that combines elements of resistance training with movements from ballet, yoga and tai chi. It aims to build core strength and improve joint alignment, posture, flexibility and co-ordination, as well as including breathing techniques that help relaxation. Exercises can be adapted to suit different levels and abilities, making it suitable for all ages and physical conditions.

Pilates has much in common with other ‘holistic’ systems of exercise, such as yoga and tai chi, that focus on posture and flexibility as underlying principles. While slower and less energetic than some other forms of exercise, movements require mindfulness and concentration to control the body, so are still effortful and effective.

How pilates is taught

You can learn pilates in small groups or as an individual. Many of the exercises are performed sitting or lying down on a mat or couch, and most are low impact. Pilates exercises are often used in physiotherapy centres to help rehabilitate people after injury or manage the physical problems experienced by people with long-term conditions such as Parkinson's. The exercises can be adapted by specialists to target the particular types of movement difficulties found in Parkinson’s.

Joseph Pilates

Pilates originated from the vision of Joseph Pilates (1883–1967). Weakened by childhood disease, he developed a daily routine of exercises to strengthen his own body, which he refined into a holistic system of exercise.

The programme he devised built on a wide variety of health and fitness techniques, including yoga and resistance training. It's been further developed since his death in 1967 into a number of versions that exist today.

Key principles of pilates

Joseph Pilates developed his system using a range of key principles, many of which are particularly beneficial for people with Parkinson's and related movement difficulties:

Concentration and relaxation

Connecting mind and body releases tension and allows the mind to focus on each move, developing body awareness and alignment.

Breathing

Co-ordination of breathing with the exercises releases muscular tension and improves oxygen circulation to body tissues.

Centre

Pilates exercises teach core or ‘centre’ stability to maintain correct posture through efficient use of muscles. For example, people with Parkinson’s often need to improve control of stiff lower back muscles before they can move onto exercises that work the arms and legs without experiencing pain.

Control and co-ordination

Pilates focuses on how well each movement is performed, not on speed or repetitions. By learning to work muscles efficiently and in harmony, stronger ones don’t dominate.

Precision or isolation

Attention is paid to the subtleties of each movement, until movements feel natural.

Flow

Flow comes from the combination of all of the above principles, making movements smooth and efficient.

Stamina from routine

As with any exercise, routine and repetition at intervals improves skill and technique. Around 15 to 30 minutes of tailored exercise, 4 times weekly, is recommended.

How pilates helps with Parkinson's

The benefits of pilates come from being in tune with the movement of your body through correct breathing, spinal and pelvic alignment, and focus on smooth, flowing movement. For people with Parkinson’s, this helps with balance.

Learning to breathe properly can reduce stress. Plus, a body under control, with balanced strength and flexibility that does not waste energy on inefficient movement, tires less easily and is less prone to injury or pain.

Try pilates for yourself

Your Parkinson’s UK local group may organise classes in your area or know of local teachers.

You could also try one of these online registers: