If you want to be able to turn around in your car and grab something in the back seat without throwing out your back…if you want to be able to pick up a heavy, oversized box without getting hurt…if you want to keep doing all the things you were able to do when you were 20 years old when you reach 90, consider taking up a Pilates routine at home.

The Pilates method is an excellent form of low-impact exercise to strengthen the multitude of muscles that surround the spine, from the top of your neck to the tip of your tailbone. In addition, Pilates can improve posture and balance to help protect your body from falling and other injuries.


Pilates, developed by Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer, in the 1920s, often is associated with the use of large pieces of studio equipment with bars, straps and springs that create resistance. But you can also do Pilates exercises at home using just a thick padded mat.

The Pilates philosophy has evolved substantially beyond Joseph Pilates’ original concept of using movement to help people heal their bodies from injury. Today, there is a distinct intellectual component to the practice of Pilates, in which participants are encouraged to continuously think about their body alignment as they do each exercise to ensure proper movement and avoid further injury. The core ­Pilates principles…

Centering. All Pilates movements start from and are sustained through the Center, known as the core or ­Powerhouse. This is true even if you are working other muscle groups such as the arms or legs. Your Powerhouse includes all of your musculature from shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, from the front to the back of the body.

Concentration. With Pilates, the mind guides the body. Razorlike focus on what you are doing is essential to executing the exercises to their fullest benefit.

Precision. To gain the most benefit from each exercise, you have to do them precisely. Pay attention to the form, structure and quality of your movements. If you are doing an exercise in the optimal manner, you don’t need a lot of repetitions to tire the muscle.

Control. Gravity must never be allowed to control the exercises. You can control gravity by moving slowly through the motion.

Breath. Pilates breathing is about increasing your lung capacity, inhaling to increase oxygenation of muscles and exhaling to rid the body of stale air. By supplying fresh oxygen during an exercise, the muscles of the Powerhouse become stronger and more flexible.

Flow. As you progress with your ­Pilates practice, your goal is to move continuously and gracefully from one exercise to the next.

Essential Exercises

This powerful five-exercise workout takes a mere 15 minutes. It stretches and strengthens nearly every muscle in your body—all the muscles of the Powerhouse in your core as well as neck, legs and arms, glutes (buttocks) and inner thighs, hamstrings (back of the thighs) and hip flexors. It even massages the spine. Do the exercises at least once a week formally, but try to bring the principles of the practice into your everyday movement as often as possible. As explained above, do them slowly and thoughtfully with an emphasis on maintaining good form—keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and your spine lengthening rather than compressing. You don’t want to increase repetitions…you want to enhance the effort by engaging the muscles with more depth and control. You may not feel like you’re moving very much at first, and that’s OK. Your goal with each exercise is to fatigue your muscles without feeling pain—which could mean as few as five repetitions. If your muscles shake, that’s also OK—it is a sign of painless fatiguing.

Helpful: Look online for a beginner Pilates mat class, or book a ­virtual session with an instructor to learn proper form so you do the exercises safely. My favorite online resource:
PilatesAnytime.com, $18 per month after a 15-day free trial.

If a move hurts, stop doing it—never try to work through pain. Part of the progression with Pilates is learning how to self-correct if something hurts. Meeting with an instructor also can help you learn how.

Warning: Yoga mats are too thin to cushion pressure points and protect the back. Preferred mat: EcoWise ⅝-inch thick ($72.99, Aeromats.com).

  1. Hundred

Lie on your mat, and center your body. Bring your knees into tabletop position (knees over your hips, shins parallel to the floor), and raise your head and neck up toward your knees. Be sure to raise your head and neck from your core and not by simply tucking your chin, which can put undo strain on your neck. Vigorously pump your arms up and down to above the level of your hips and then down to the floor while you inhale deeply for five counts and then exhale deeply for five counts up. Start with one to five repetitions, and work up to a max of 10 repetitions, which is 100 pumps. Important: Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth as if you’re breathing through a straw to support your upper body. If you feel neck strain, lower your head and neck a bit and continue the exercise. Count breaths, not hand pumps.

To advance the movement: Perform the exercise with your legs straight, toes relaxed. The higher your legs, the more you support your back.

  1. Single Leg Circles

Lie on your back on your mat, arms at your sides, palms down. Extend one leg up to the ceiling as high as you can. The bottom leg can be straight, or bend it to support the back and help straighten the lifted leg. Keep the knee soft, and push the heel of the lower leg gently into the mat to stabilize the hips. Start making a circle with your extended leg, staying within the frame of the body. Your goal is to keep the hips stable on the mat. Repeat five times, and then reverse the circle for five repetitions. Switch legs, and repeat on the other side.

To advance the movement: Straightening the bottom leg and/or increasing the diameter of the circle can both increase the challenge of this exercise, but you never want to go wider than your shoulders, and your hips always should stay on the mat.

  1. Rolling Like a Ball

Sit on your mat, knees bent, feet on the mat. Place your hands behind your knees, and lift your feet off the mat a few inches. With a small rhythmic rocking motion, gently roll back as far as feels comfortable and then come back up in a continuous flow. The motion drives from the abdominals. Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and up. Inhale as you rock back, and exhale as you rock forward. Progress to rolling farther back toward the floor and back up again, keeping arms behind your knees.

To advance the movement: Hug your shins so your body is in a tighter ball. Repeat five to 10 times.

  1. Single Leg Stretch

Lie on your mat, and bring your knees into your chest. Lift your head and shoulders off of the mat using your abdominal muscles rather than your neck muscles to avoid straining your neck. Place both hands on one knee with your elbows out wide. Extend the other leg out at no more than a 45-degree angle while you continue to hug the knee toward your chest. Exhale and pull the extended leg toward your shoulder. Inhale and shift your hands, and extend the other leg. Exhale and pull the extended leg toward your shoulder. If your neck is compromised with lifting, keep your head on the mat. Repeat eight to 10 times for each leg.

To advance the movement: You can hold your position during your breath work and increase the movement flow.

  1. Spine Stretch Forward

Sit up tall on your mat. Open your legs a bit wider than your mat, keeping your knees slightly bent and your feet flexed, so that the heels are digging into the mat. Reach both of your arms forward at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart with your fingers stretching toward the end of the mat. The arms should be at shoulder height and parallel to the mat at all times during this exercise. Shoulders should remain neutral. Inhale and lift your spine. Exhale and curl your nose toward your naval and the top of your head toward the mat. Let the shoulders move naturally, and keep your lower back straight as you stretch forward—curl from your upper back and shoulder blades. Inhale as you roll back up to sitting tall. Exhale and repeat three to five times.

To advance the movement: Deepen your exhalation so it reaches further into the abdominals to deepen the stretch of the spine.