Pilates first gained popularity as the training regimen that gives dancers long, lean muscles, but in the past few years, several programs have sprung up across the country to offer the method to some of the people for whom it was originally created: military veterans. Joseph Pilates reportedly developed his eponymous method while he was being held in a World War I internment camp to help his fellow internees—many of them wounded servicemen—rebuild their strength.
Michael Podlenski, a physical therapist at Naval Medical Center San Diego, started a Pilates program for his veteran patients soon after he began working at the hospital about three years ago. Podlenski says the naval hospital was his first experience working with patients with amputations, so he spent a lot of time early on observing them.
Podlenski watched how patients with bilateral above-the-knee amputations walked, extending their knees through the momentum created by whipping their prosthetic legs forward from the hip.
“It puts an excessive strain on the back if you don’t have really good core control,” he says.
Having extensive training in Pilates, Podlenski knew that the method could help address this issue and that Pilates equipment could improve the way the amputees performed exercises to improve mobility and gait.
“For instance, they were doing hip flexor stretching on a mat, lying face-down with a bolster underneath their knee,” he says. “[Using Pilates equipment is] more effective and it puts less pressure on the lumbar spine.”
In addition to the physical benefits, using a reformer, trapeze table and other Pilates equipment in rehabilitation also offers some psychological advantages, Podlenski says.
“If you’re stuck doing exercises on a mat … and you do that for weeks at a time, it’s quite demoralizing. It doesn’t motivate you,” he says. “When you can have someone moving through space or flying through the air, it does something for their psyche.”
Under Podlenski’s advice, the hospital soon purchased several pieces of Pilates equipment, and since then he has been active in showing his colleagues how to use it with their patients. He also has worked with a therapist from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which purchased a reformer after hearing Podlenski and one of his colleagues give a presentation about the Pilates program at a recent American Physical Therapy Association conference. Pilates programs for veterans also have been established at several non-medical fitness facilities.
Chuck Paris, an Army veteran who operates a nonprofit chaplaincy organization, launched the Purple Heart Pilates program in May in cooperation with the owner of Health and Wholeness, the Arlington, VA, fitness facility where Paris’ wife, Heather, oversees the Pilates studio.
The program, which offers free Pilates instruction for veterans, was the ideal way for the couple to work together to help a community they both care about, he says.
“When Heather was getting her certification, we thought: ‘Why couldn’t we use this now, since it was originally intended for wounded soldiers?’” he says.
Jean Leavenworth, an instructor at Pacific Northwest Pilates, Portland, OR, started offering free classes for veterans through the Returning Veterans Project, a local nonprofit she heard about from a client who donates her own services as a mental health counselor to the organization.
Leavenworth agrees with Podlenski that Pilates offers psychological benefits as well as the obvious physical benefits.
Some research already has demonstrated the effectiveness of yoga at treating anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and Leavenworth says that practicing Pilates can yield similar results. Like yoga, she says, Pilates requires focus on the body and on breathing, which forces its practitioner to relax and to be present in the moment.
“We kind of specialize in rehabilitative Pilates at my studio,” Leavenworth says. “I work with a lot of people with injuries, and hearing about the injuries that some of the veterans were coming back with—amputations and brain traumas—I knew that Pilates, and that mind-body connection, could really help them recover.”