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How Pilates Changed My Life

A non-jock discovers the hidden beauty of an exercise regimen

By Jill Smolowe

When we were younger, it was easy to measure the progress in our lives. First grade followed kindergarten. College followed high school. Assistantship, associateship, whatevership followed get-the-boss-coffeeship. Life markers tended to be big and splashy. Graduation! Marriage! Parenthood!

Now comes this bear — retirement —and we’re suddenly on our own to create the markers that will provide a sense of forward momentum in our lives.

Maybe that’s why I’ve become so devoted to my workout practice. I know. It doesn’t sound like much. But indulge me a moment to explain.

My interest in Pilates began, as so many things in life do, with a casual question. “Hey,” I called across the fence one day to my neighbor. “You look great! Are you dieting?”

“Nope,” she responded. “Pilates.”

I blinked, surprised. Up to that moment, the only thing I knew about Pilates was that Madonna did it. That, to my mind, meant it must be some overly precious, overly priced, overly convoluted form of exercise for pampered A-list types. On that basis alone, I’d never looked into it. But here was my neighbor of two decades, most definitely not a pampered celeb, telling me she loved Pilates. Moreover, the results were staring back at me: She really did look great.

“Want me to sign you up for a complimentary class?” she asked.

A week or two later, we drove to a studio just seven minutes from our neighborhood. The instructor, inspiringly fit, asked me if I’d ever done Pilates. When I shook my head, she pointed to one of the seven black exercise tables, known as reformers. “Follow along,” she said. “But don’t overdo it. Just do what feels comfortable. OK, everybody. Let’s start on our backs.”

Making a Fitness Match

Dutifully, I laid down on my back. This was exercise? Over the next hour, I came to see that not only was it exercise; it was kismet. Pilates and I were made for each other!

Ever since my student days as a (very mediocre) gymnast, I’ve had a thing about stretching. Through the decades, as I tried and then abandoned various exercise regimens — aerobics, running, swimming, fast-walking — my commitment to maintaining flexibility remained a constant. Sometimes I attended yoga classes; sometimes I stretched alone at home, letting either a VCR tape or my inner instructor guide me. But, always, I stretched.  Because when I didn’t, for even short periods, I would quickly begin to feel stiff and uncomfortable.

That first day on the reformer, I could feel how the machine answered my need for elasticity. The various resistances pushed me to elongate the stretch of my arms and legs, torso and back. Over the course of my initial six-month membership, I sensed my flexibility deepening by modest increments. One day I looked in the mirror and was startled to see my legs stretched to a full split, a position I hadn’t achieved since high school — only now, I could do it on both sides, a feat I’d never achieved even back in my gymnastics days.

As class followed class, I began to notice other positive results.

The reformer’s resistance springs augmented strength and muscle tone. The abs segments (killer!) put an emphasis on core work more demanding than I’d experienced in yoga classes. The low-impact jumping segments got my heart rate up while leaving my knees unharmed (a problem that had turned me away from running). And unlike other activities I’d tried, I emerged from a workout feeling that I’d exercised all parts of my body. It felt damn good.

A Late-in-Life Jock


As months, then years, ticked by, my twice-a-week commitment notched up to three classes a week, then four. This, in and of itself, was amazing to me. The least athletic of the four children in my family, I’d always been the one who (unless there was a ski slope in sight) had to be coaxed to put down my book and come outside for a bit of exercise. Now, at mid-age, I’d become the jock in the family.

Mind you, I don’t actually want to attend classes all of those days. But at this particular studio, there’s a rule that if you sign up for a class and don’t give a 24-hour cancellation notice (so someone else can use the machine), you have to pay $15. Crazy as it may sound, I like that penalty fee. The threat of it makes me go — every time. (Turns out, Pilates is a bit pricey, averaging $15 to $55 for a group session, depending on where you live. While I’m happy to pay to do it, I’m not so happy to pay to not do it.)

There’s a social component to all of this, as well, that has proven an unexpected bonus. I introduced my octogenarian father to Pilates. I introduced my daughter to Pilates. I introduced an old college friend to Pilates.

And week after week, as I see many of the same faces, I hear the chatter about family, work, travel and movies. I’m not much of a contributor. For me, once the class begins, it’s all about the breathing. (That, too, is a bonus of sorts. A meditation, if you will.) But the surrounding din is friendly. And my classmates’ efforts can be inspiring. When one woman with a teen-like body mentioned her 70 birthday was coming up, I made it a goal to have a body like hers at 70.

Three-and-a-half years after my introduction to Pilates, my neighbor has moved on to spin classes. Not me. I’m still there on my reformer, giving it my best, class after class. I haven’t tired of it. I haven’t grown bored with it. I want to keep pushing forward to see what I’m capable of.

Times of Transition

In a recent class, I increased my usual resistance settings on the reformer in order to achieve the satisfying workout I’ve come to expect.  Each time I’ve reconfigured the settings in the past, I’ve taken quiet pleasure in the measurable evidence that my diligence is making my body stronger, more toned, more flexible.

This time, though, I realized for the first time that my incremental progress is serving another purpose, as well — one that has more to do with my head than my body.

Like many of you, I’m at a transitional moment in my life. Post-career but pre-retirement, my parenting role downsized to fit the shrunken contours of an empty nest, I am struggling to envision what the next 20 years will be. What goals will I set for myself? Where will my sense of growth and forward momentum come from? How will I define purpose and reap meaning from what I am doing?

Those are big questions that, no doubt, will find answers. But it’s going to take time. Meanwhile, during this ill-defined period that feels so disconcertingly free of guideposts, it’s reassuring to have an activity that reliably provides a sense of purpose. It’s encouraging to see measurable progress. And it’s a relief to know that, whatever else I may or may not accomplish in the course of a day, I will emerge from my hour in the Pilates studio feeling that my time has been well spent.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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