Pilates: The Kid-Friendly Workout

Knowing how to position the body and move adeptly works to your child's advantage on the soccer field or on the tennis court. These abilities don't just boost your child's game, they also lower the risk of sports injuries. And according to its practitioners, there is no better proactive way to develop children's awareness of body mechanics than through the practice of Pilates.

Pilates comprises a range of over 500 low-impact exercises that can be done as a mat workout or with the aid of specially devised machines. The exercises strengthen the body's center — the muscles around the abdominal, lower back, and hip areas, collectively referred to as the "powerhouse" in Pilates parlance. A fundamental technique is to work from the powerhouse region while performing a series of leg and arm movements. Minimal force is used; rather than holding a pose as you would in yoga, the body is kept properly aligned while going through the moves precisely and smoothly. Mental concentration and breathing rhythms are incorporated.

At Power House Pilates in Manhasset, Steven Panzik, physiotherapist and instructor, leads elementary school-aged children through Pilates-evolved exercises with physio balls, discs, and rings. Some instructors also use imagery that children can relate to when explaining the concepts. While 9- and 10-year-olds do simple stretches and maneuvers like the 'bridge', kids 12 and over are introduced to classic Pilates moves such as the 'swan', and to some of the equipment.

"Pilates is an inclusive form of exercise in that the workout can be adapted for all levels of fitness and learning capacity," Panzik says.

Pilates is sophisticated work, but experts say that kids grasp it well, and can become skilled at it. Ana Caban, of the Absolutely Pilates Studio in Los Angeles, says, "Joseph Pilates observed children and animals in order to help create his method of movement. Many of the movements look like something a child might do, or have an animal name — like the seal, elephant, monkey, swan, or crab. All in all, Pilates is very natural for children."

Jonathan Urla, Pilates instructor and founder of Yogilates Center for Integrative Fitness on the Upper East Side, says, "What kids like about Pilates is that it is mostly on the floor on mats. They like being on the floor as this puts everyone on the same level, including the adult teacher. They also like trying some of the fun exercises like ‘rolling’, and like to show off in ‘teaser’. Now, I wouldn't integrate adults and kids, or even teens and kids, as I don't think it works all that well. For kids under 12, the focus has to be mostly on fun. Once they are teens, you can start to focus on form and technique more."

Pilates benefits teenagers, Urla believes, "because at this age, many teens are feeling awkward about their bodies. Pilates teaches control over the body and posture. These two things can help give confidence to teens."

Rachel Taylor Segel, co-author of The Everything Pilates Book, adds: "There is tremendous value for children in the development of their breathing capacity, increased circulation, 'ownership' of their bodies, and the control of their minds through the mental focus/quieting. Because the underlying tenet of Pilates is 'uniform development', what better time to organize the body well than when we are 'developing'?"

Pilates inculcates proper posture; kids can get into the habit of sitting properly when watching TV or working at their computers. Segel notes: “The exercises relieve strain on the vulnerable areas of the body, such as that caused by lugging heavy backpacks to school. The workout complements sports activities that kids enjoy. The training of the core muscles and the agility acquired through Pilates promote performance in games and competitions. Through the sessions children acquire good control on their body in motion, which enables them maintain better balance. Segel observes that Pilates results in injury prevention in children involved in a sport or dance. She adds, "The increased coordination, stamina, and efficiency of movement all help children in their daily lives and in sports." Best of all, as kids work the mind and body in concert, they are not exhausted but refreshed at the end of the session.

Finding a Pilates instructor

• The original Pilates Studio in NYC has a website (www.pilates-studio.com) and a comprehensive list of qualified instructors • Romana Kryzanowska, Joseph Pilates’ pupil of 28 years, still teaches in NYC; her website is www.romanaspilates.com (more instructors are also listed on this site). (Our thanks to Pilates instructor Michaela Sirbu — michaela@symmetria.com — for these resources). • The Miami-based Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), a not-for-profit association dedicated to maintaining the standard of Pilates practice, has a website(www.pilatesmethodalliance.org) with state-wide listings of Pilates teachers, along with information on their training and professional background.