Oh, my aching neck, or back, or feet, or…
Physically, nurses have it tough: lifting, pushing, pulling, and sitting in one position for too long. We all know that regular exercise can make a world of difference, but who has the time or energy to go to the gym? All too often, our sneakers sit by the door, as we collapse on the couch.
Given the physical demands and stress of our jobs—no wonder so many nurses are injured.
Fortunately, a system of exercise called Pilates can help, as some nurses have already discovered. This 80-year-old system is designed to correct imbalances in the body and strengthen overstretched, weak areas while improving flexibility. Pilates is effective largely because of its focused awareness of deep-core muscles.
Pilates has more than 500 exercises, and every one involves these muscles:
• the transverse abdominal muscles, which are like a tightly wrapped corset
• the pelvic floor muscles
• the diaphragm
• the shoulder girdle muscles that seat your scapulae in their “pockets.”
When consciously engaged, these muscles stabilize the pelvis and spine. Pilates teaches you how to use and strengthen them safely. And Pilates offers a bonus: Because you work through a wide range of motion, your abdomen, hips, and thighs develop a leaner appearance.
A few fundamental Pilates exercises can get you started. Add a daily power walk to your regimen and you’ll be on your way to canceling your gym membership and putting the cash toward a few new outfits, or some lessons with a certified Pilates trainer who can help you refine your technique.
You won’t need sneakers for the workout, but you should wear comfortable clothes and have an exercise mat or cushy carpet and a small bath towel. Also, make sure you consult your physician before trying any new exercise program. And don’t start doing Pilates if you are experiencing back or neck pain.
With all Pilates exercises, you’ll pull in the lower abdomen—as if you’re zipping up a tight pair of jeans—and hold it. This action is called “holding or engaging your scoop.” Then, breathe deeply into your side ribs and back, and with the two ischial tuberosities of your pelvic floor (or “sitz bones”) drawn together, actively draw up your pelvic floor.
Taking the Pilates stance
Stand with your heels together, toes 4 inches apart, and knees straight but unlocked, as shown above. Draw your navel in and up firmly, with the pelvic floor and sitz bones engaged. Lengthen your spine by stretching your tailbone toward the floor and the top of your head toward the ceiling, with your scapulae anchored toward your back pockets. Shift your weight forward to the front of your feet. Maintain this position as long as possible, breathing deeply and engaging your scoop even more with each exhalation.
Now, let’s try some fundamental exercises called 100’s, rolling back, and leg stretch/leg circles.
Lie supine with your legs elevated at a 90-degree angle or with your feet placed flat on the floor. Curl your head and upper chest up and in toward your abdomen, while flattening your navel into your spine and reaching your fingertips past your hips with your palms down and arms parallel to the floor.
Begin rhythmically beating your straight arms up and down 6 to 8 inches. Continuously inhale for five down beats, and exhale for the next five. Continue this pattern until you complete 10 full breaths. If tension builds in your neck, lower your head to the floor. If your lower back is uncomfortable, bend your knees.
Begin by sitting with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, legs parallel and a hip-width apart. Press your hands behind your thighs and open your elbows wide with your shoulders anchored down. Draw your navel in and up.
Curl your pelvis under, engaging your sitz bones and pointing them toward your heels. Aim your lower back toward the floor, while tilting your chin down and looking into your midsection. Curve your spine into a C-shape.
With every exhalation, scoop the midsection more deeply. Then, looking to be sure you’re keeping your scoop, release one hand and then the other from behind your thighs. Roll backward slightly, placing your next vertebra on the floor, then place your hands behind your thighs again and scoop more deeply. Continue rolling back toward the floor, one vertebra at a time, until your entire spine and head are on the floor. Then, reverse the movement, bringing your chin toward your chest, rolling up and scooping, one vertebra at a time until sitting full upright. Stretch your spine to the ceiling. Repeat the exercise three to five times.
Leg stretch/leg circles
Lying supine, loop a towel over the arch of your right foot. Holding both ends of the towel in your left hand,straighten your right leg towards the ceiling. Your other leg should be lengthened along the floor, but only if your hips, lower back, and shoulders can remain squared and on the floor.
Stretch the straight leg toward your nose and, breathing slowly, hold for a count of ten. Next, keeping your hips, waist, and shoulders on the floor, take the leg across your body toward your left shoulder and hold again for a count of ten. Switch the towel to your right hand and move the leg to your right, maintaining your squared, anchored torso. Hold again.
Last, remove the towel, place both hands on the floor next to your body, and lengthen your right leg to the ceiling. With your toe as a pencil point, draw circles on the ceiling five times, first in one direction, then five times in the other direction.
Repeat all of the above steps with your left leg.
If you do these fundamental Pilates exercises daily, you’ll start to feel—and look—better. And despite the stress and physical demands of your job, you’ll discover that you’re coming home from work with energy, not aches.
Colleen Wenrich, RN, owns and operates Whole Pilates, LLC, in Ringwood, New Jersey. She is certified in Authentic Pilates and in Applied Psychophysiology.