As a young adult, I had a misguided approach to getting into shape. My quest took me countless years and many painful lessons. I subjected myself to endless hours at the gym, lifting heavy weights, running on the treadmill, and attending group classes while hoping to find something that resonated with me. I learned from watching other people exercise, and browsed the fitness magazines at the local grocery store. Looking back, I realize my exercise education came from other people who probably did the same thing I did. So, who really knew what they were doing?
If someone looks physically fit, are they moving correctly? Sadly, in my younger years, this thought never crossed my mind. I wish I’d had the foresight to understand that looks can be deceiving. I was focused on one thing: looking good. Like a lot of people, I had no idea what I was doing. My poor exercise habits slowly created muscular imbalances, spine compression, and unsustainable movement habits that one day would lead to injury.
Last year, I received an email from a man in his 60s, inquiring about private Pilates training. Andrew told me he was born with structural scoliosis and had worked out for years. As a young man, he lifted weights five or six days a week and managed to achieve significant muscle mass. The weight training, however, did not address his scoliosis and further compressed his curved spine. By the time he was 50, he had shrunk two inches, leaned noticeably to the left, and his ribs were closing in on his pelvis, literally squashing his organs. Walking, standing, and sitting were painful. Sadly, this story is all too common.
During our first lesson, Andrew told me that, at 57, his spine was crushed from the constant compressive forces from weightlifting. Surgery was his only option. The surgeon straightened his spine as best he could, and removed 12 disks. His spine was fused from just below his neck all the way down to his pelvis. Everything was held together with stainless steel rods and screws. He grew about an inch and a half and stood straighter than he had in years. Finally, he could walk and stand without pain.
After the surgery, and the loss of more than 30 pounds, he decided it was time to get back into shape. He started back where he had left off. He exercised the same way he always had, acting like nothing had happened. The weights didn’t bother his lower back, which was a huge blessing. But he was unaware that the stainless steel rods weakened his core and lower back muscles. To compensate, his upper back, glutes, and hamstrings worked overtime. They were always activated, always stressed. Now, at 63, the pain was debilitating. He no longer could sit comfortably. He was unable to sleep. And he knew something had to change.
Andrew had heard about the benefits of Pilates, so he decided to give it a try. Prior to working with me, he lived in Malibu and experienced a group Pilates classes, geared toward flexibility, that did not address corrective movement patterns. Not long after starting Pilates, he felt this style was not the right fit. It was a feel-good break from lifting weights, and mostly consisted of stretching. In his unique situation, he believed private sessions were necessary. He was convinced there were many Pilates exercises he would be unable to do, and creating more pain was not an option. He needed more.
Shortly after Andrew began his work with me, his pain began to decrease. He worked hard and learned everything he could. Applying what he learned to his daily life and to exercise at the gym was paramount. We had a conversation about his personal achievements, and he told me that he now realized the full potential of the Pilates method. I told him he was ready for a group method Reformer class. After several months of the method class, he realized he could keep up in a class and, with the right modifications, could move successfully and safely. There were some exercises that required a flexible spine, and hands-on assistance was necessary. Andrew took on the challenge with enthusiasm. I told him we all have personal limitations, and that the beauty of Pilates is that it is so adaptable. When taught from a biomechanical perspective, anything is possible.
Today, Andrew is keenly aware of how to engage his core muscles even with his fusion. He told me that abdominal engagement makes everything so much easier. Walking, riding his bicycle, sitting at his desk, working out, even folding laundry—focusing on activating his core is part of his new muscle memory. It’s the first thing he does before he makes a move, especially a move that challenges his back.
Overall, his pain level is significantly lessened, and he has managed to keep his muscle mass. People tell him he looks healthier, more fit, and in better shape than before. Andrew said he wished he had discovered this unique method of Pilates years ago.
Maintaining muscle mass and not placing undue pressure on his unfused, upper spine–while strengthening his core—was our next step. Currently, Andrew attends my athletic Pilates classes three times a week and is progressing nicely. If it were not for my personal journey, I would not have created unique exercises using the Pilates Reformer to build strength without compressive loads to the spine. I am truly blessed to have been able to share my experience and guidance with Andrew, and to share his story with you.
Thank you for reading this blog post. I hope the lessons we both have learned can help the next generation learn healthy exercise habits.