Pilates Reformer moves from strength to strength
Once dismissed as a fad, Pilates seems to be making a comeback.
As the fitness world places emphasis on core strength and utilising one's body weight in functional movements, the decades-old exercise system is steadily regaining its reputation, even taking on yoga in the popularity stakes.
The German physical therapist Joseph Pilates devised the system while working as a nurse during the First World War. He contended that stretching and breathing techniques were the most efficient way to heal injured servicemen.
Later, his theories were incorporated into a piece of equipment called the Pilates Reformer. While somewhat daunting in appearance - they look at bit like something from a medieval torture dungeon - the machines are truly state of the art.
The low, bedlike apparatus has a padded carriage that slides back and forth from adjustable pulleys at one end. On it, you do a series of leg presses, arm pulls and core exercises. Various springs can be attached to different hooks to alter the resistance of the movements.
The exercises are challenging but manageable. Since you can adjust the difficulty, only the woefully unfit would not be able to operate the machine.
It also means that you improve flexibility and stay fit without putting excess strain on the body.
But because of the cost of the machines and the space required to safely operate them, they're still relatively uncommon in the UAE.
Bodytree studio in Abu Dhabi offers Pilates Reformer classes. Regular participants include some of the city's fittest residents, such as Andy Babbayan, a 35-year-old military consultant from the UK.
Last year, Babbayan competed in what is regarded as the toughest endurance race on the planet, the Marathon Des Sables. The gruelling event involves running the equivalent of six marathons over six days through the inhospitable sands of the Sahara desert in Morocco.
After completing the ultra-marathon, Babbayan began to suffer from leg pains. "I'm in my mid-30s now, and I was finding that all the exercise and training that I've done has begun to catch up with me," he says. "Every year it becomes slightly harder to train.
"I guess as you get older you become more aware of your frailties. From doing Pilates, I've realised that exercise doesn't always have to be intensive, pedal-to-the-metal type activities.
"But ever since I started Pilates, there has been a marked improvement in both my coordination and my abdominal strength."
Richard Fenne, a 36-year-old architect, from the UK, also uses the Pliates Reformer. In his younger days he played rugby union at a high level; now he's a prize-winning runner - he was the winner of last year's Abu Dhabi Striders 10km race - and triathlete.
After requiring surgery on his knees, he took up Pilates.
"When you're younger, you tend to pick up injuries and just accept them as they'll heal pretty quickly," he says. "But as you get older, you start to look at injury prevention rather than injury recovery.
"I think that Pilates gives you a more rounded kind of strength. You know, there are some people who could bench press 120kg but couldn't do a plank in our Pilates class."
The sessions at Bodytree are taught by the Australian studio coordinator Natasha Clarke. She agrees that the Pilates Reformer is particularly useful to men who have overdone the exercise over the years.
"The good thing about it is that it works muscle groups with no impact on joints," she says. "Plus it works on very precise, small muscles in controlled ways, so people with certain injuries find it very beneficial."
She says the benefits are myriad: "I've heard people say it helps their golf swing while others say it improves hamstring flexibility. The fact is, once you're in your 30s, if you want to remain active into your 40s, you need to take up something like Pilates or yoga to keep going."
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