I take Pilates every Thursday afternoon, and it’s hard, but I keep going back for more. I’m hooked. Why? Because, as I’m breathing and counting the “one hundreds”
in unison with the group, I can feel the whole world at one, moving in synchrony, happy, without a care in the world… Too much? yeah, I thought maybe it was too much.
But even if Pilates does not transport me to a state of complete bliss, the group and the rhythm of the group moving in synchrony makes it all feel so good.
Everyone knows exercise is good for you. The physical benefits, and even the mental health benefits, are well documented. And group exercise, particularly exercise that involves timing and rhythm, adds to the benefits in multiple ways.
As you enter the gym at ALTA during a Pilates class, you might hear Jonathan, a fabulous tenor, singing out instructions to his class. He is like a conductor, getting everyone to move harmoniously. Another time, you’ll hear Raoul giving his class a distinctive beat to follow. If we get out of sync, it’s like nails on a chalk board for Raoul, a professional percussionist. Laura focuses on breathing and the inherent rhythm of the breath to keep everyone in sync. For all these great instructors, it’s instinctive, it’s natural and it speaks to one of the hidden benefits of Pilates. Synchronous movement is like exercise on steroids, and Pilates – first designed for dancers – is all about flow.
But why do we get all of these great benefits from group exercise?
Endocannabinoids: Of the hundreds of hormones and neurotransmitters coursing through our bodies, endocannabinoids are relatively new discoveries (from the 1990s). These fat-based neurotransmitters increase with exercise. As they increase, the sense of social connection is enhanced. As we move, the release of endocannabinoids evoke a sense of calm and connection. When we move together, we really feel the togetherness. There isn’t a lot of time to chat when we do Pilates. We get after it. But still, those bonds that form are strong. And it’s the combination of movement, rhythm, and shared experience that does the trick.
Endorphins: Another group of neurotransmitters, endorphins are the brain’s natural pain killers. They enhance euphoria and social bonds, even among strangers. Endorphins are produced with exercise, but really increase when moving in a group. Bronwyn Tarr, a British psychology researcher, found that this translated into increased pain tolerance among dancers who danced with others compared with those who danced alone. Blood work showed that endorphins increased dramatically when you danced in a group and pain tolerance increased as endorphins rose. (When people were given an endorphin blocking drug, pain tolerance decreased).
Years ago, when my mom moved to town, I was talking to my patient, Marilyn, about how she found friends when she came here at 70. “Tell her to join an exercise group”, said Marilyn. “When I moved to Boulder to be near my daughter, I joined one volunteer group after another and honestly, the best way to make friends was joining an exercise class.” Marilyn assured me. Mom found her tribe at water aerobics and the friends she made enriched her life immeasurably.
Covid has gotten really old. The isolation is hard. Moving makes it better and moving in a group makes it even better. A hiking group, a group run for a cure, a march for a cause and yes, a Pilates class are all ways to feel better, stronger and happier.