Actress Claire Chitham on the strength and wellbeing benefits of Pilates

Claire Chitham in a reformer pilates studio

In the first of a new series on keeping active, actress Claire Chitham talks about the strength Pilates gives her, why it’s never boring, and how it’s helped her manage Crohn’s disease.

How do you choose to move and why?

Pilates makes me feel stronger and more in touch with my body. I hold my posture better, I’m more flexible, and because of all that I feel capable and empowered to do pretty much anything.

How did you get into Pilates?

I started doing Pilates in 2003. I walked in as a very unfit 23-year-old with no muscles to speak of. Within three months I noticed a huge change to my shape and my ability to actually hold myself up or do a sit-up. The movements might not feel that hard to start with, but as soon as you are strong enough to start advancing, it becomes super-challenging… in a good way. Within two years I was training to be a teacher because I loved the body knowledge it gave me.

I’ve taught Pilates on and off for over 15 years now, but the thing I love most is doing it myself. In that first year I lengthened my spine, I grew by 5cm, I gained abs, I strengthened my booty. I went from being so weak in the arms and slouching on national television, to being able to do full press-ups and an unassisted headstand. Pilates taught me about how my muscles are meant to wrap around my bones to help hold me up and support me.

What are your goals?

It’s always about how I feel within my body. Do I feel strong, are my muscles switched on and holding me up in good posture easily? And this affects how confident and sexy I feel. When I haven’t been doing classes for a while, I start to get aches and twinges in my lower back and shoulders, and as soon as I get back to classes they disappear.

At Suna, where I train, they are always evolving the classes. You can move up and down through stronger springs or variations of exercises depending on what level you’re at, so you can always rest a tired body or push a more energetic one depending on how you’re feeling. My dream with Pilates is that I’m still doing it when I’m 120 and it’s the reason I can live such a long and mobile life.

How has Pilates and being active helped with Crohn’s disease?

By building a strong abdominal wall and core, I built a protective layer around my stomach and guts. I used to slouch and slump very easily and that area of my body would be collapsed, which can’t have been good for it. I started Pilates because I wanted to get fit, but I actually gave my body a greater chance to heal by strengthening everything around my internal organs. It helped me sit up better, it taught me to breathe better, which in turn reduces stress and inflammation.

What wellbeing benefits do you get from it?

The focus on deep breathing and building core strength have numerous health benefits. Continuing to build strength is one of the best things you can do that’s anti-ageing. I don’t buy into the idea that our bodies fade away as we age and that certain failures are inevitable. As we age, we learn about our needs more, so we know how to take better care of ourselves. Pilates is ageless, gender-neutral and adjustable for everyone. My favourite clients when I was teaching were the 80 to 90-year-old legends who would come in and be unafraid to learn how to balance on all fours on a wobbly Swiss ball. They had more determination than any 20-year-old.

Advice for someone thinking about trying Pilates?

Find a class to try, and see if you like it, but then if you really want to notice the benefits of Pilates, look for a class that will work for you – whether that’s the location, the frequency or the cost – and commit to three months or more. You will notice a real difference in that time.

Why do you do it?

Because I don’t get bored by it. I get bored pretty easily and I don’t love repetition. Every class is a little different, so I never feel that sense of, “Oh this one again.” And when I’ve been behind a computer at a desk for longer than usual it becomes a necessity to prevent aches and pains.

How else do you move?

I do online resistance-based classes that might use light weights, yoga classes when I need to tune into my internal self, and jogging or walking. I started running when I was about 30, but because I had strong quads, glutes and abs from Pilates I found I could run without any injuries. I really enjoy running when I’m in the mood for it. That’s more for my mental fitness than physical.

Any more thoughts on being active?

Finding ways to move that you personally love is the best thing you can do for yourself. As a teacher, I know that if someone isn’t emotionally invested in what they’re doing, they simply won’t commit in a way that makes a difference. Don’t do it because you think you’re “meant to”, do it because you find a way of moving that you adore, that makes you feel something. If you love to dance or swim or run, find a way to make those your regular modes of moving. And walking with a friend is one of the best things you can do for your body, mind and soul. It’s good for your joints, your lungs and your brain. And it’s free.

Good For You: A guide for good guts and feeling good inside and out by Claire Chitham
Good For You: A guide for good guts and feeling good inside and out, is available in bookstores and at goodforyoutv.co.nz.

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