People with walking disability turning to pilates

More than 11 million people in the US use pilates to build muscle and maintain good health. The focus on balance and core body strength in pilates is also making it the exercise choice for many people with multiple sclerosis who are concerned about losing the ability to walk.

Charlotte Robinson-Pritchard, a public school teacher in Denver, was diagnosed with MS in 1987. Always a healthy person, her legs gave out one day while teaching a class, and she fell. Like many people diagnosed with MS, she saw a future of wheelchairs. She was afraid the inability to walk would rob her of her independence, her career and her ability to care for herself and her family. She did some research and learned about pilates. She found a pilates specialist and began training – and the results have been remarkable.

Since her diagnosis, Charlotte has completed several triathlons. She successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. And she has dedicated herself to helping others with MS to remain mobile and stay healthy with exercise. She founded a nonprofit called Adventures Within that arranges activity programs including skiing, canoeing and mountain climbing for people with MS.

Mary Kay Foley, PT, GCFP, is a physical therapist and pilates trainer at The Heuga Center, one of the world’s largest centers for exercise and PT for people with MS. She has worked with hundreds of pilates trainers and MS patients and has seen firsthand the benefits of pilates in keeping people moving. She has identified essential strategies to modify pilates programs to focus on walking ability for people with MS specifically. For example:

Many traditional pilates moves put pressure on the body that can lead to spasticity (uncontrolled muscle spasms) in people with MS. Mary Kay suggests avoiding or altering pilates movements that put pressure on certain part of the body, particularly the balls of the feet.

Intensive pilates workouts can cause people with MS to overheat – which causes many of the symptoms of MS to worsen. While pilates training needs to be challenging in order for patients to benefit from the exercises, it should also be designed to reduce the risk of overheating for people with MS.

Training should focus on movements that are known to improve balance, leg strength and walking ability.

In addition to toning and sculpting the body, pilates also has therapeutic benefits of decreasing chronic lower back pain and disability. For people living with MS,pilates focuses on core muscles–muscles in the center of the body like deep abdominals and muscles around the spine–that are important for overall stability and balance, common problem areas in MS. Pilates also builds strength (without bulk), teaches body awareness (great for MS patients struggling with numbness), promotes good posture, and improves muscle elasticity and joint mobility. One of the more overlooked benefits of pilates is that it emphasizes proper breathing and smooth, flowing movements–both natural stress relievers.

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