Autoimmune diseases and Pilates

As a Pilates instructor, I’ve learned to look for patterns. There are the common reasons people initially begin a Pilates practice—they suffer from low back pain, hip stiffness, wonky knees, etc. There are the typical conditions that contribute to some of these issues—long hours spent at a desk or working at a computer, pregnancy, weekend warrior syndrome. And there are factors and symptoms that can be linked—weak glutes, tight hamstrings, pelvic instability, poor core strength—to gain an understanding of what’s going on in a person’s body.

I started to notice a trend in clients who thrived at the Pilates studio when most other kinds of exercise felt out of reach—and they’d all been diagnosed with autoimmune disorders. Immune system disorders cause both abnormally low activity and/or over activity of the immune system. When the immune system is overactive, as it the case with autoimmune diseases, the body attacks and damages its own tissues. Autoimmune illnesses include a broad range of conditions, from Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) to Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus) to Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Many studies demonstrate the positive effects of exercise on people living with an autoimmune disease. These can include increased energy, reduced fatigue, reduced anxiety and depression, reduced inflammation, improvement in sleep quality, and an overall reduction in pain.

One of our clients first joined the studio after doing her own extensive online research about the best exercise program to help her regain strength and mobility. Following two years of inactivity due to RA-related illness, she wasn’t sure where to start, but she was encouraged by what she’d read on the Internet and by the intimacy of our studio and the personalized nature of our programming. Progressing from gentle movements and exercises targeting core stabilizers to full-body work that stretches and strengthens, it’s been a joy to watch someone who felt so disconnected from her body find old forgotten muscles and develop a new awareness of how her body works

Another client, diagnosed with Lyme Disease has experienced fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, balance issues, and migraines, to list just a few symptoms. Pilates had been part of his life for years before his illness, and it was one of the few activities that he was able to continue as he recovered. Even during a lengthy incident of vertigo, he was able to carry on with strength training and conditioning on the reformer.

The versatility of the Pilates repertoire—and equipment means that exercises can be done in many physical orientations, with differing amounts of resistance, and accommodating all kinds of bodies and conditions. Whether you’re coaching a patient with MS suffering from hemiparesis (weakness on one side of the body) who needs to work unilaterally to maintain strength, or resistance training a client with Crohn’s Disease to modulate immune function, Pilates can promote well-being and improved quality of life in those suffering from autoimmune disorders.