Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flexing to fitness

Sisters embrace Pilates, enjoy significant results in non-intimidating setting

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Metal springs, straps and stirrups ominously dangle from the Reformer, a machine resembling a medieval torture device.

But Kathryn Mitchell Loewen and her sister Margaret Mitchell willingly climb on, laying flat on each machine's carriage and placing their heels on a bar in front of them. Their instructor, Nicole Mulder, instructs them to slowly lift their hips off the mat, keeping their backside muscles engaged.

"Recruit your glutes," says Mulder, looking taut in her fitted black Lululemon jacket and matching pants.

Her goal: to strengthen the sisters' glutes and hamstrings.

"They do have more weight to lift. They have to carry their weight with them. That's going to make the exercises more challenging," Mulder says after class.

They've come a long way, she says, noting that the pair is now doing more advanced versions of exercises they could barely get through when they first tried them.

It was in November that the sisters signed on for Plus Size Pilates at Pilates Manitoba.

Pilates incorporates a series of strength and flexibility movements that are said to elongate the muscles, rather than shortening them the way traditional weightlifting can. Movements are centred around the body's core.

Experts agree that it doesn't replace aerobic exercise, but is an effective addition to it,

Plenty of River Heights and Tuxedo residents -- mostly women -- frequent the Academy Road studio to take small Pilates classes tailored for them. Many of the people who sign up for Pilates are already fit but want to fine-tune their flexibility and strength.

Mitchell Loewen -- a Fort Richmond mother of four -- heard about the class and decided to take it on. She asked her sister, a nurse, to sign up with her.

Mulder says the sisters are stronger than when they started. And they say the comfort with doing Pilates there beats a regular gym.

"It's the intimidation. Having a body that's not like everybody else's and going to a place where everybody's fit and trim. That's just too intimidating," says Mitchell.

Her sister says she enjoys the results she's getting.

"I'm very much more flexible. And my core is stronger. I sit up taller," says the soft-spoken Mitchell Loewen who, along with her husband, is in the midst of building a new house and renovating her current house. She says she used to find tasks such as refinishing her floors almost impossible.

"Bending over for a long periods of time would have been a real issue," she says. "And now I'm still tired afterwards, but I can do it."

That kind of progress is exactly what thrills Pilates Manitoba owner Annabel Scott, who introduced Plus Size Pilates classes in November.

Scott is devoted to the Stott brand of Pilates, a contemporary approach to the original Pilates created by founder Joseph Pilates.

Her Plus Size classes are adapted from more advanced Pilates movement.

"We do a lot of it seated or with special raised mats with a lot of specialty props that help with stability and alignment and reducing friction on joints," says Scott, who also offers an Osteo Pilates, a class for people with low bone density. "It's all about getting the building blocks right so all movement becomes better."

Classes are usually limited to three or four people so instructors can keep classes small and controlled. Cost for Plus Size Pilates is $200 for a package of 10 classes.

Online sources claim Joseph Pilates invented his workout regime while in a forced internment camp during the First World War. The German-born circus performer/boxer -- who was small and sickly as a child -- spent his teens overcoming his physical weaknesses by studying anatomy and getting fit.

Pilates built his reputation as a trainer and developed apparatus when he was detained in England as an enemy. There, he insisted everyone on his cell block train with him -- doing floor exercises. Not content to let the injured soldiers who were too weak to exercise lie in bed, he attached bedsprings to their headboards and footboards, providing them a way to complete resistance exercises while lying in bed.

This was the beginning of the Reformer and the Cadillac -- two of the most recognizable pieces of Pilates equipment today.

All the sisters know is that Pilates works for them. After class, both sisters are glistening with sweat and they look exhausted but satisfied. They aren't in pain, but admit the moves were tough.

Mitchell, who has lost 56 pounds since August, doesn't attribute her weight loss to Pilates, but says it makes her feel good -- and is a welcome part of her new lifestyle.

"I'm just trying to tone up and eat more healthy," she says.

Mitchell Loewen is inspired by her sister and is amazed by her newfound body awareness.

"I think what Pilates does is it makes you aware of the muscles you don't think about," she says. "I think about lying straight or sitting straight. I think about using my glutes to go up the stairs.

"In my daily life, I can move better. I am stronger."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2012 D1

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