Sign Up For Peyow E-News

Seated Adaptations for Pilates

Posted by on May 22, 2014

Listen to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, by Otis Redding, and it invokes a peaceful scene. I would like nothing more than to relax, sit on the dock, and watch the tide roll away, but after sitting and reading “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” by NASA scientist Joan Vernikos, PhD., I thought “How can I possibly justify the benefits of seated exercise?”.

Dr. Vernikos research is based on studies done on astronauts who spent months in a zero-gravity environment. It is documented and evident that living without gravity has very unhealthy effects on the musculoskeletal system. Startlingly, Dr. Vernikos determined that the astronauts had aged significantly during their time in space and needed months of rehab to return to their normal “body age”.

Back on earth her continued research showed that lying down had the greatest effect of deprivation of gravity on our bodies, and sitting down was not much better. Hence my doubts as to the benefits of seated exercise.

For over 20 years, I have taught seniors, people with limited mobility, frail, elderly people, and post-surgery patients. Most of these people simply cannot stand up for the recommended 30-45 minutes of daily exercise, nor can they afford private sessions and exercise machines. My classes usually have 30-40 enthusiastic students, and we use a variety of weights, flexible bands, and toning balls.

Does my experience with hundreds of people fly in the face of Dr. Vernikos’ research? Not at all. Let ‘s think about it… isn’t a lot of strength training at the gym performed on seated equipment? When we work on the Pilates’ equipment with clients, we progress a client from supine, to seated, to kneeling, to standing, to challenge stability. Furthermore, in observing gait and functional movement, I noticed a tremendous lack in coordination, body control, proper breathing, balance and posture – all principles of Pilates. The principles are usually focused on the core, and strengthening it, but they also involve neuromotor exercise skills which can be easily started in seated positions, where the client is supported.

Here’s some of the ways seated exercise can be beneficial:

Those with limited mobility can work out, and their caretakers may join them. For example, an amputee in a wheelchair comes each Tuesday to class, and the caretaker reads the paper. Additionally, in class this morning, two vibrant women in their early 60’s came to class; one in a sling had just had rotator cuff surgery, and the other, in a boot, just had foot surgery. This supports the fact that even if some parts of our bodies are impaired, we can always move something.

In an extremely unique example, a woman named Georgia, 104 years young, came with her daughter, age 75, and the mom was in better shape than the daughter! Those who have fallen or have fractures cannot put their all into a workout because of the fear of falling. While they are seated, there is a comfort knowing they are stable and it is safe for them to move their bodies, to stretch, to strengthen, and to gain confidence.

Over 7 years ago my husband had a series of seizures. He was in an induced coma, and subsequently in ICU for 5 weeks. He could barely lift his own head let alone lift his arm, but soon after waking up, he made a joke and we knew he was going to be better.

It took many months, lots of patience, pain, and perseverance, but he now plays piano, teaches, plays tennis, and hauls his own keyboard to gigs (although the last thing he would gladly give up). When we signed him out of the hospital, we realized there was much to be done, and it would take a whole team – a team of angels. As he got stronger each week, he was encouraged and began with the Stronger Seniors ‘Stretch’ DVD, which is 30 minutes of stretches in a chair. When I got home, he said the “old ladies in the video had kicked his___” and he was very sore for a few days. He continued to exercise sitting down, walk with assistance a few steps at a time, and little by little he’s made a full comeback.

When training large groups you can impart the concepts of Pilates, teaching them to be mindful of what to move and how to activate the correct muscles for the exercise. Many younger people come to the seated classes as a way of adding to their current walking or aerobics program, because the upper body and core exercises are beneficial.

Coordination techniques and responses can be tested in seated positions safely, as well as perturbing the vestibular system.

The torso can be challenged by leaning off center, with core muscles responding.

Mobility of the spine in segmental articulation is done in seated positions in Pilates. Flexion from the tail to head, from the head to tail, extension from the head through the thoracic spine, rotation, lateral flexion, and combinations of all of these are movements built into seated Pilates work.
So, even though science tells us that “Sitting Kills”, we still do it. If we can stretch while seated, move, breathe and maintain a neutral spine while we are sitting, maybe our workplace will be a little more efficient, our posture a little bit better, and our neck tension reduced. And we may even have some energy left over to march in place, stand, walk around, go dancing, bend down, reach up, and use gravity to help us in our efforts to stay as functionally independent as possible and help prevent the premature aging of our bodies.


Reference: “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” by Joan Vernikos, PhD. c.p. Dec 2011 Linden Publishing, Quill Driver Books.

Author: Anne Pringle Burnell created Peyow Aqua Pilates and the Stronger Seniors Workout Program. She is certified by Stott Pilates, in Mat, Reformer, Cadillac, Chairs, and Barrels, and works as an Instructor Trainer for Stott Pilates Certification courses, a Merrithew Health & Fitness Corp. She has been a presenter for IAFC, ATRI, Midwest Mania, and the National Council on Aging, she is faculty/education provider for AEA, ACE, AFAA, ATRI, and AquaStretch. She works at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Northwestern Medicine Healthcare, Peninsula Hotel, University of Illinois Chicago, and Elements in Motion, a Stott Pilates licensed training center.