x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Stretch for health

The key to staying healthy as we age could all be down to our flexibility.

Sarah Noble, Pilates instructor at Zen Yoga Studio in Dubai.
Sarah Noble, Pilates instructor at Zen Yoga Studio in Dubai.

While the studio areas in gyms vibrate to the rhythm of high-tempo, dance-focused fitness fads such as zumba, more and more modern health centres are devoting areas to a more sedate form of exercise.

The rise of stretch-based workout classes, built around the fundamentals of yoga and Pilates, suggests that the perfect health antidote to the frenetic, stress-inducing world we live in may lie in some very "old school" therapy.

New research, reported in the October edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine, has highlighted how weekly classes in yoga improved the function of people with chronic lower back pain - a condition that research also shows has become increasingly prominent among working Emiratis. This data on the pain-relief benefits of synchronised stretching follows a York University study published in July 2011, which revealed how yoga-like exercise encourages the release of stress-relieving hormones in the body.

In recent years therapeutic, ligament-lengthening classes have sprung up across the region as more and more people turn to the more traditional exercise principles as a means of combating the strains of modern life. "We now run more classes, more teacher training sessions and more workshops than ever before," explains Sarah Noble, a Pilates instructor at the Zen Yoga studios in Emirates Hills (www.yoga.ae).

"We began five years ago with one studio dedicated to yoga. There are now more than 10 studios offering yoga and Pilates in Dubai alone - plus almost all of the spas and fitness centres here are adding classes to their repertoire. In addition, a number of schools now offer instructor training in both yoga and Pilates, so the number of tutors available to teach has risen greatly in the past couple of years."

Newly qualified practitioners are adapting the key moves into novel hybrid sessions designed to offer those of us in need of a little loosening up some more exciting twists on a centuries-old theme. For example, you could try Yogilates - a yoga and Pilates combo with a tad of Tai Chi thrown in - at venues such as Al Sufouh Beach (www.coredirection.com). Or there's mat Pilates, with its muscle-toning, whole-body moves at the Palm Strip Mall in Dubai (www.real-pilates.com).

One of the newest challenges on the block there is Xtend Barre. Developed by the dancer turned Pilates instructor Andrea Rogers, Xtend Barre is a fusion of stretches, cardio work and basic ballet movement. With classes also launched in Australia, London and Paris, it's available in Dubai through Soma Pilates Studio at Urban Bohême Spa (www.soma.ae) and in Abu Dhabi at Yoga Tree (www.yogatree.ae).

The need for us all to do more stretching is also something that Dr Samuel Saukkonen, medical director at Chiropractic Dubai, insists should be a health priority.

"Our lifestyles have changed dramatically over the past 20 years and we have found that people have become far less active than previously," says Saukkonen. "Whereas before we would find children playing in parks, cycling and being more active, we have found the shift has been towards a much more sedentary lifestyle.

"Concerns here in the UAE have been voiced about a lack of exercise. We see many patients who come to us claiming they cannot exercise regularly because of an injury or pain caused by their lifestyle or job, but they cannot do anything about it," he explains.

While modern lifestyles may bring many benefits, the likes of Saukkonen fear that the way we work and our love of computer-based technology comes at a severe cost to workers in the UAE. "Most of us sit in the office with our heads and shoulders in a forward position - on laptops, BlackBerrys, computers, driving. Repeated day after day, for months or years, these habits place undue stress on the muscles of our neck and shoulders as well as the lower back and hips."

Over an extended period of time experts find that this can cause physical and mechanical changes to our muscle and joint structure and function, and even alter the neurological pathways to our brain and spinal cord. "Just imagine that as your muscles shorten, chronic muscle and joint irritation can actually cause slow scarring inside these structures," says Saukkonen. "No wonder you then feel 'stiff'."

Saukkonen is among many who recommend regular DIY stretching drills to cut your risk of long-term aches and pains. But he's also aware that exercise of any form often needs some serious motivation, which is where the social buzz and routine of a Pilates class can prove doubly helpful.

"Most of us, myself included, think stretching is rather boring and we often find ourselves sacrificing it for any other physical activity," says Saukkonen. "But as you can imagine, that sacrifice comes at a rather painful cost. That is why I myself think of it as something that is the means to reach my personal goals. I know that without it, I for example would not be able to do certain sports I love to do on a regular basis."

At her Pilates classes, Noble believes that employing stretching drills won't just combat muscle strain and improve your sporting prowess, it can also seriously help workers rid themselves of the symptoms of stress.

"First and foremost, Pilates teaches you how to breathe, an essential tool for relieving stress. It both disciplines and strengthens the mind and body," she says. "And due to the hot weather that is experienced for most of the year here, yoga and Pilates offer great exercise alternatives to outdoor activities when it is too hot. Once people try the classes and see how fast they feel the benefits and effects, they are hooked."

Before signing up for a class, Noble suggests you read up a little on the principles of yoga and Pilates. "Perhaps even watch a video on it, and be sure to research the studio and instructors to make sure that everything is organised professionally," she says.

In the meantime, reap the rewards of a good stretch by following some tips from our expert (above).

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