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Pilates: The Immune Booster

Joseph Pilates leading a group through his Mat system of exercises

How has your cold and flu season been this year?

As a follow up to the last blog relaying the health benefits of Pilates, did you know that Pilates by its very design is one big boost for the immune system? That can be very reassuring this time of year and reason #101 to keep up with your Pilates practice.  How does Pilates specifically boost your immune system comparatively to other forms of exercise?  Let’s discuss…

Joseph Pilates during World War I

First, let’s take a look back in history to understand the magnitude with which Pilates can directly ward off flu and viruses.  Back in the early 1900s, Joseph Pilates was in the early beginnings of developing his conditioning movement method, which he coined Contrology at the time.  He believed that the mind should learn to fully control one’s movements for improved function and greater health.  When World War I broke out in 1914, Joseph Pilates and his brother were touring in England in a martial arts type of act in a traveling circus show common of that era. Due to Joe’s German nationality, he was deemed an enemy alien and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man near Lancaster.  In the camp he started putting the other detainees through his system of exercises (what we know today as the Pilates Mat work system of exercises) on a daily basis. It is also reported that he started exploring his innate abilities for rehabilitation with the wounded soldiers as he helped them regain their strength and mobility.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

He was still in the internment camp when the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 broke out.  The Spanish Influenza was one of the deadliest influenza epidemics to date. According to cdc.gov,  it infected 500 million people around the globe, even in remote areas of the world. It killed between 50-100 million people, approximately 3-5% of the world’s population.

History.com explains, it became known as The Spanish Influenza, because the newspapers censored the numbers of infected and mortality in Germany, UK, France, and US in order to keep wartime morale up.  However, in politically neutral Spain, the papers were allowed to give a more accurate report of the deadly numbers. This gave the false impression that Spain was more drastically affected, and therefore, it became known as “The Spanish Influenza.”

What was unusual about this flu was that it did not just affect the more vulnerable populations of the very young and elderly, but had a second wave of heightened mutation that wiped out typical resistant populations, people between the ages of 20-40. History.com reports that more U.S. soldiers lost their lives from the pandemic flu of 1918 versus the War.  Wikipedia reports that it has been deemed “the deadliest natural disaster to date in human history.”

Joseph Pilates leading a group through his Mat system of exercises.

Not a Single Loss

Having discussed the merciless widespread immensity of this pandemic, it really puts into perspective the astonishing fact that not a single person in the internment camp with Joseph Pilates succumbed to the pandemic influenza.   The camp he was in varied no differently in the crowded conditions and the same varying ages of detainees as any other camps. The only difference that could be pinpointed was the system of exercises the detainees were doing daily under Joe’s voluntary lead.  Joe’s daily exercise regime was attributed to be responsible for creating robust internal immune systems within the individuals.

How does Pilates specifically strengthen the Immune System?

I’ll keep this little bit of physiology as simple as possible.

Your immune system is essentially made up of the body’s lymphatic system.  Lymph circulates through lymph nodes clusters spread throughout the body and is scanned and filtered by immune cells for viruses, bacteria, and any other types of foreign matter.  However, in order for lymph to be propelled through the body to go through this screening process, it relies on a couple of specific musculoskeletal muscles that act like a pump.  It is not an automated system like our cardiovascular system. Therefore, quite literally our ability to ward off virus and disease relies on the movement of our bodies that involve two muscles specific to Pilates!

Two Muscles that aid the Immune System

The two main muscles that provide movement of the lymph tissue throughout the body:

  • The Transverse Abdominus -This deep layer of abdominals is called upon in every movement in Pilates to serve the greater health of the spine, as well as, to assist as an accessory pump to the lungs for strong healthy breathing and circulation. It is one of the essential muscles used pervasively in the Pilates Method.
  • The Calf Muscle.

Essentially, every movement in Pilates by its very design is aiding in the movement of the lymph in your body, which is your innate immune system helping you stay healthy. Do you think Joseph Pilates understood this physiology connection on an intuitive level?  Absolutely.  There are too many exercises where the choreography includes utilizing the calf muscles layered with the abdominal usage that is fundamental to the Pilates Method.

Examples of Pilates Exercises using the Calf Muscle like a Pump

These are just a handful of exercises that use the calf muscle like a pump to aide the immune system layered with the use of the deep abdominals.

  • Footwork on the Reformer (especially the last version “Heel Lower Lift”)
  • Stomach Massage (Lowering the heels and lifting the arches every rep on the first two versions)
  • Climb a Tree (Short Box on the Reformer with the built in point and flex of the ankle/foot)
  • Shoulder Bridge with Kicks on the Mat
  • Sidekick Series on the Mat with the point and flex choreography of the foot
  • Leg Pull Front on the Mat
  • Monkey (Push-through Bar with the point/flex of the ankles/feet)
  • Foot-Ankle exercise on the Wunda Chair
  • The Standing Classical Footwork or “2X4”

In conclusion, another significant reason to keep up with your Pilates throughout cold and flu season. Be assured that even if you do end up coming down with a virus or infection, your immune system will be stronger because of your consistent Pilates routine to help you fight it, lesson its potency, recover more quickly, and get you back to feeling yourself. My friends and family will tell you that I am not known for my hardy immune system.  However, I hate to think what my immunity would look like without Pilates in my life. 😉

Here’s to strengthening your immunity and making it through the rest of the season healthy and thriving!

Wishing you Wellness,

Lindy Irwin

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