Pilates is wonderful for every body of every age. Seniors, in particular, can really benefit from a Pilates practice. Balance, strength, flexibility, focus, and your breath are all areas you may notice have changed with age. Pilates at its core works on improving all of those things.
Pilates is one of the best ways to build functional core strength. So if it’s not already part of your routine, you’re missing out.
Originally developed by Joseph Pilates, this efficient, gentle training method involves a series of exercises that teach you how to activate and coordinate several muscle groups at once—starting with your core. While some classes incorporate equipment, like a reformer machine, many of the movements can be done on a mat.
“Every movement you do originates in the core,” says Pilates instructor Sean Vigue, author of Pilates for Athletes. That’s not only true for Pilates exercises, but also for everyday movements like walking, standing upright, and pushing a grocery cart, he says.
That’s why Pilates exercises—which help build overall strength, stability, and coordination—are incredibly functional and can help you maintain your independence.
Case in point: A study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found women over 65 who did one-hour Pilates sessions three times per week improved their strength, balance, and reaction time after 12 weeks, compared with their Pilates-free peers.
But you don’t have to commit to hour-long Pilates sessions to see benefits. In fact, you can see improvements in strength and stability by doing 10 to 15 minutes of dedicated practice, Vigue says. The five moves below are a great place to start. You just need a little floor space and a mat.
How the At-Home Pilates Workout Works
You can perform these moves with or without shoes on, whichever is safest and most comfortable for you. Do one set of each exercise below in order, flowing from one move to the next with little or no rest in between if possible. Once you complete the final exercise, rest one to two minutes, and repeat the full Pilates circuit one or two more times.
For best results, complete this workout three times per week. As your fitness improves, you can add additional rounds or sessions.
Ready to get started? Here’s how to perform each movement. As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a Pilates class. If you have a chronic condition, balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.
Pilates Exercise #1: Bent-Arm Plank
Hold for 30 seconds
Lie on your stomach on the floor with your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and forearms flat on the floor. Focus your eyes between your hands. Your legs should be resting behind you, knees hip-width apart (or slightly farther apart for extra balance).
Lift your hips toward the ceiling until your body forms a straight line from head to ankles, and squeeze your upper back, core, and glutes. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Make it easier: Hold your plank as long as possible, rest, and repeat until you reach 30 seconds total. Or do the move with your knees on the floor, and lift your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to knees.
Pilates Exercise #2: Swimming
Do 5 reps
Lie on your stomach on the floor with your legs extended behind you, knees hip-width apart. Keeping your shoulders down away from your ears, stretch your arms forward so they’re shoulder-width apart.
Pull your belly button up and in toward your spine as you lift your right arm and left leg off the floor. Your head and chest, if possible, should also lift off the floor, but only lift as far as you comfortably can. Keep your neck neutral, and gaze down on the floor, if that helps. Lower back down, and repeat on the opposite side with left arm and right leg extended. That’s one rep. Do five reps total.
Pilates Exercise #3: Saw
Do 5 reps
Important note: This exercise involves forward bending and twisting of the trunk, which is great for stretching and lengthening, but isn’t recommended for anyone with osteoporosis. If that’s you, skip this exercise and move on to the next (you’ll still get a great workout), or talk to a fitness professional about a safe alternative for you.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended and opened wide. Your heels should rest on the edges of or just outside your mat. Extend your arms straight out to the sides, and flex your feet.
Take a deep breath. As you exhale, rotate your torso to the right, reaching your left hand forward and to the outside of your right foot. Only reach as far as you comfortably can. Pause here, finding length between your fingertips and feeling your sit bones grounded into the mat.
Inhale as you release and stack your spine up, then exhale and rotate to the opposite side. That’s one rep. Continue alternating for five reps total.
Pilates Exercise #4: Bird Dog
Do 5 reps
Start on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Engage your core, keep your spine neutral, and gaze down or slightly forward.
Lift your left arm and extend your right leg until they are in line with the rest of your body. Pause, then lower back down, and repeat on the opposite side with right arm and left leg extended. That’s one rep. Do five reps total.
Make it easier: Keep your hands on the floor, and only extend your leg.
Pilates Exercise #5: Single-Leg Stretch
Do 5 to 10 reps
Important note: This exercise involves forward bending and isn’t recommended for anyone with osteoporosis. If that’s you, skip this exercise (you’ll still get a great workout), or talk to a fitness professional about a safe alternative for you.
Lie on your back with your feet lifted so your shins are parallel to the floor in tabletop position. Rest your arms at your sides.
Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, pull your belly button down toward the floor, and peel your head and shoulders off the mat. As you curl up, extend your left leg out at a 45-degree angle while your right knee stays in tabletop. Gently grasp your right ankle with your right (outside) hand, and let your left (inside) hand rest on your right knee. Keep your shoulders relaxed, and continue drawing your belly button down toward the floor.
Switch legs on a two-part inhale. Breathe in as the left knee comes in, and bring more air in as you gently pulse that knee toward you. Switch hands so your left hand is at the left ankle and the right hand is at the left knee.
Switch legs again on a two-part exhale. Breathe out as the right leg comes in, and let more air out as you gently pulse that knee toward you. Switch hands so your right hand is at the right ankle and the left hand is at the right knee.
Continue this breathing pattern as you switch legs and hands. Keep your feet moving in a straight line rather than allowing them to go up and down in a bicycle motion. Do five to 10 reps on each side.