When you’re navigating menopause, it helps to have all the back up. And that includes having an exercise program that supports you inside and out. Pilates could be that thing for you: In fact, a study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that just eight weeks of Pilates training led to improved strength, fewer hot flashes, and fewer psychological symptoms in menopausal women.
As estrogen levels dip, leading to decreased bone mass and a redistribution of fat toward your midsection (so many joys), exercise that focuses on core strengthening and balance, like yoga or Pilates, is essential, says ob-gyn Susan Reed, M.D., chief of service for obstetrics and gynecology at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“I literally would put that into a prescription for my patients,” she says. “These are essential elements as we move into menopause gracefully.”
The mind-body approach Pilates offers can be especially beneficial for women who not only are going through major physical changes, but are also dealing with caring for aging parents, putting children through college, and other serious stressors, says pelvic health specialist Kelsea Cannon, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Elizabeth Rogers Pilates + Physical Therapy in Seattle.
“Pilates offers them time to connect with their bodies and breath, and move in a positive way,” she says.
Here, Cannon shares seven Pilates-inspired exercises that will help you strengthen your entire body. Instead of focusing on a certain number of repetitions or sets, do what you can with good form, be consistent, and progress from there.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
A breathing exercise may seem simple, but when done correctly, diaphragmatic breathing can have powerful effects. The goal here is to tune into and initiate the stabilization of your pelvic floor muscles, which can be relaxing or energizing, depending on the day, Cannon says.
How to: Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart. Place your hands on your belly so you can feel your breath. Inhale and allow the belly to expand. On the exhale, try to imagine cinching at your waist and knitting your ribs in toward one another, engaging your abdominal muscles to allow the breath to fully leave your body.
Continue for several rounds of breath, scanning your body for any tension you might be holding in your abdomen, glutes, inner thighs, neck, and shoulders. Focus on allowing the pelvic floor muscles to relax on the inhale and to lift and engage during the exhale.
2. Finding a Neutral Spine
In Pilates, many moves are queued with a neutral spine. And that’s a little different for everyone, from standing and moving with your tailbone tucked under to having a deep curve in your lower back to something in between. Taking some time to practice finding a truly neutral spine can help you perform more advanced exercises safely, says Cannon.
How to: Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart. Place your hands on the front of your hip bones, noticing how the front of your hips and your pubic bone align. Breathe deeply, focusing on the exhalations and shifting your weight until you feel you feel like you could rest a cup on your lower belly and not have it teeter back and forth. If your spine is tucked up, for instance, your imaginary cup would fall toward you.
3. Pelvic Tilts
Often called “imprinting” in Pilates, pelvic tilts allow you to explore the range of motion within your pelvis, while stabilizing the deep core and pelvic floor muscles.
How to: Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart, and your spine in a neutral position. Inhale and create an arch in your lumbar spine (lower back), guiding the movement with your pubic bone. As you exhale, move through neutral and then gently press, or imprint, your lower back on the mat.
You can think of pelvic tilts like a reclined very mini cat-cow pose, says Cannon. The movement should feel like a very subtle rocking motion through your low back and pelvis.
Bridges, also called pelvic curls in Pilates, build strength throughout the backside of your body and your hips, which can help keep your body stable as you age, says Cannon.
How to: Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart, and your spine in a neutral position. Inhale to prepare. Exhale and cinch your waist while pressing your feet flat into the mat, using the strength of your legs to lift your hips up away from the mat.
Lift your hips only as far as you can without clenching your glutes, putting pressure on your low back, or flaring out your ribs.
“It’s not how far you go, it’s how you go,” says Cannon. “You really want to make sure the ribs are lightly tucking down and in the entire time. The ribs act as an end point for how far you should lift.”
For added benefit, focusing on fully relaxing through the glutes, inner thighs, and pelvic floor with each resting inhale between bridges.
5. Basic Back Extension
If you want to stand tall through menopause and beyond, basic back extensions can help. This exercise builds strength in the thoracic muscles surrounding your upper back, which are often thought of as the “posture muscles,” Cannon explains.
How to: Start on your belly with your arms along your side, palms facing in. Zip your legs gently toward one another and point your toes. Inhale to prepare. Exhale and lift your head shoulders, chest, and arms slightly off the mat. Use the muscles between your shoulder blades to initiate the movement, drawing your shoulder blades down and back. As you lift, keep your abdominals engaged to protect your low back and look slightly forward of your mat to keep your head aligned with your spine. Inhale to return back to a resting position before repeating.
Planks, which are a popular movement across fitness disciplines, can help build total body strength and stability. In the Pilates world they’re also known as “front supports.”
How to: Start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine. Stabilize at your shoulders, hips, and knees and breathe deeply, imagining your body as a strong, solid bridge that won’t bulge under immense weight. This “quadruped” plank is beneficial for weight bearing in the arms and building bone density and muscle strength in all body parts, Cannon says.
If you’re looking for a challenge, reach one leg back at a time on exhalations with minimal weight shift into the full front support plank position. Remember that a full plank is never an end goal, it’s just an option to progress to, says Cannon.
“As long as the breath is not compromised, nor the quality of the pose, then you can hold as long as you want,” she says. “Once you get form fatigue where your breath is unable to flow, there is pain, or you sink or sag with gravity that’s the end point.”
7. Side-Lying Straight-Leg Raise
In a world in which we’re constantly moving forward, it’s a good idea to check in with the side of your body, especially your side glutes, says Cannon. These often-neglected muscles play a critical role in balance and stabilizing the pelvis, pelvic floor, and low back region.
How to: Start lying on one side with your ears, shoulders, ribs, hips, and knee in one line. Extend your bottom arm to support your head and bend your bottom knee with your hip and knee creating a 90° angle for support. You can place your top arm on your hip, or in front of you on the mat for added support. Keep your top leg in line with your ribs, lengthen through your torso, and engage your top leg away from you, reaching toward the opposite wall. With the leg engaged, lightly lift the leg on an exhale, about six inches, before coming back to the starting position.