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The Exercise That Saved Me During This Pandemic Year

I’ve been transformed from the inside out.

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Variety of different women doing Pilates on mats
Aart-Jan Venema
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Spring 2021 is finally here, and welcoming the new season means that it’s been close to 13 months (400 days!) of social distancing, masking and staying home. Collectively, we’ve experienced all four seasons navigating the perils and threats of COVID-19. Coping with the pandemic looks different for everyone, as I’ve learned from my friends: Mary mastered gourmet cooking, Caroline perfected her knitting, and Jenna got a puppy.

My husband organized every drawer, closet and room in our house.

Me? At the age of 51, I learned to listen.

Late last March I was frantically trying to order hand sanitizer when my young-at-heart 60-year-old friend Deb texted me: “STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW. I’m in a live, virtual Pilates class. Get in here. Maybe we can order matching unitards. CALL ME!” 

In my late 20s — newly married and relocated from New York City to Rhode Island and before our twins arrived — I experimented with Pilates. A lifelong runner, I needed to increase my flexibility, and I wanted some variety in my workout routine.  In my early 30s, I gave birth to boy-girl twins (one with special needs) and my fitness routine disappeared into a crazy mix of full-time parenting and working with two infants, a dog and an equally busy husband. Not only did I not have a Pilates practice, but I also barely had time to practice napping.

When Deb’s text arrived at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, I thought, Great, this is the short-term solution I need for at-home workouts until I get back to my high-intensity training classes at the local gym.  

What I didn’t know, along with millions of other Americans, is that nothing is short-term about this pandemic.

The twins are now 18 and were on the verge of being independent young adults out in the world, but thanks to the coronavirus, I felt as if I had time-traveled back to the blurry, challenging no-workout/no-self-care/ignore-what-I-need days. Talk about regression and depression!

Kids asking for snacks. My husband begging for help with the Wi-Fi. The dog barking and barking. Phones ringing. Dust balls rolling. And I’m in the middle of it all, trying to work, parent, teach, vigilantly keep an eye out for COVID-19 symptoms and order masks, food and sanitizing wipes. As in 2003, there was no time for showering or working out. I wasn’t trying to shed 63 pounds of pregnancy weight, but believe me when I say I was feeling weighed down physically and mentally.

Like so many moms, dads, and grandparents across the United States (and the world), the lockdown and pandemic meant staying at home for everything — work, school, socializing. Every. Single. Thing. Multiple worlds colliding and happening on two floors of our colonial home on a quiet street in New England. This sudden, drastic change in living habits was jolting and disorienting, and then Deb’s text arrived four weeks into the pandemic.

I never expected that when I clicked on the virtual class link, I wasn’t accessing just another free workout but that it would uncork a powerful elixir — calming, warming, empowering. Who wouldn’t jump at this?

Women of all ages. Pre- and postnatal. Injured and recovering. Newbies and fitness instructors. Dancers and runners. All of us together in one place. Technologically connected in order to connect.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, while I was busy balancing kids at home and lots of domestic and professional chores, I had the release of a Pilates routine, one that was increasing my flexibility and strengthening my muscles. And to my utter surprise, Pilates was also healing my anxiety, stabilizing my mood and filling me with hope and light, during these dark times in our world.

In the 1920s, Joseph Pilates created the system of exercises that bears his name as a way to strengthen the human mind and body. As someone who battled chronic illness as a child, he believed that mental and physical health were interrelated. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Pilates came into the world just as the world was coming out of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. There is even a legendary tale that, as historic literature states, “nobody got sick” during the influenza outbreak at Knockaloe Camp where Joseph first trained prisoners.

Research from the Mayo Clinic shows that Pilates improves flexibility, focus, cognitive function and brainpower. A-list celebrities including Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon swear by the physical and mental workout the practice provides, as do regular women of a certain age (like me) who just want to look and feel better. While spinal rotations and core work have definitely toned my body, it’s the internal work Pilates has done, more than the external, that has saved my head and heart, my social life and my sanity.

I’m surrounded by new girlfriends (virtually, of course) and we share music, books, recipes, stories and sunrises. I look good but feel even better. Recently, our instructor, Kara Duval, told our class that when we listen to our physical bodies, our emotions and brains benefit. The pandemic taught me to listen to my whole self, which is the unexpected secret to health and happiness. After years of ups and down in life and in my weight, I’ve been transformed from the inside out. And I do admit that, at the age of 51, I like looking hot in a unitard!

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