Reforming the Body: Anyone can open the door to fitness with Pilates

At Swan Pilates, owner Susan Swan tailors a fitness plan to each client. In each class, there is never more than four clients to a teacher. (Karen Schaffner/Staff)

By Karen Schaffner

Susan Swan wants to help everyone live a better life.

Age, size, condition and/or injuries do not matter — everyone can benefit from Pilates. In fact, it is her mission to help others become balanced, and more mobile and confident in how to use their bodies.

“When we’re older and we’ve had more birthdays, we’ve had more life experiences, too,” she says. “A lot of those life experiences are going to stay in our bodies. How can we work to balance our bodies given all the things it’s been through?”

Swan, 71, is a testament to the power of Pilates, with her sculpted arms and firm, confident gait. As owner of Swan Pilates in Oro Valley, she leads classes and teaches individuals how to tone their muscles from the inside out, and that is the crux of Pilates.
Clients can learn to be fit using their core muscles. By strengthening their core — or the muscles deep within the torso — they can strengthen their entire body.

The equipment used at Swan Pilates seems simple and complex at the same time. The main item used comes with the scary name “reformer,” a flat bed with springs attached. It turns out to be not so scary.

“The equipment is set up so that the nervous system can settle and learn,” Swan says.

“The other part that is really, really huge for senior people is plain old balance. When using the reformer, you can challenge balance without ever frightening the nervous system. You can challenge balance, but the body is not afraid it’s going to fall, so it’s going to learn all of the ways to keep itself together.”

That’s the point. Pilates with guidance is a not-so-frightening way of gaining back the confident use of the body.

“Balance isn’t just one thing,” Swan says. “We certainly know balance isn’t just, can you stand on one leg? But can you walk successfully, do everything you want to do? We have balance challenges all the time. We don’t know they’re coming, but do we recover? Can we quickly step to the side? Can we quickly see where the trouble is and adjust ourselves?”
That’s where the reformer comes in.

First, beginners do not work out alone at Swan Pilates. Swan and her staff guide clients through their workout effectively and safely.

To alleviate the fear of falling, clients lay down on the reformer. A coach/trainer directs the client through the moves. It’s gentle, and when a client has issues and cannot perform a move or has pain, such as sciatica pain, Swan finds another way to strengthen that particular muscle.

“(Pilates) is not scary,” 91-year-old client Cynthia Pruett says. “You never have to try to do more than you’re capable of doing. When you’re doing something, you do it to your capabilities. You do it to your own determination. There’s nothing forcing you to do too much, and so you get this pleasant feeling of fluidity in your body.”

Swan has a very gentle way about her. She speaks gently but confidently, and her clients do not feel intimidated.

“If you’ve got a body, Pilates is good for you,” Swan says.

A German citizen, Joseph Pilates developed this method of training while he was a World War I prisoner of war on the Isle of Man. He eventually made his way to the United States and tried to interest the military here in his training method, but was declined, Swan says.
He opened an exercise studio in New York City and eventually, injured professional dancers trained with him as a way to recover. He died in the 1960s.

The studio opened in 2010 and Swan, who was a nurse for 43 years, began teaching in 2011. She took over the studio in 2017 and has fairly faithful clients. Pruett is one such client. As with Swan, Pruett walks tall and moves with confidence. She says Pilates is one part of her fitness regime, but credits it with her good balance and posture.

“It goes from head to toe in elongating you,” she says. “You’re lengthening your body, so it really helps keep you from starting to get that dowager hump. As you get older, I’m not quite the way I was when I was 40, but on the other hand, I stand up straight. I’m strong, physically strong, so I can do the things I want to do as I age.”

The reformer is not the only piece of equipment that works on posture. There are others, including the “armchair.” Instead of sitting in it, clients lie back and correctly stretch your spine.

“The armchair has this big arc,” Swan says. “It is no minor thing to teach the body how to get the significant weight of our ribs, shoulders, neck and head up and away from gravity … you really develop the thoracic extension while still protecting the lumbar spine.”

Pruett readily admits she is a “true bionic woman,” with replacement hips and knees, yet she continues to live her life fully because she is deliberate about her movements.

“The whole thing for me is that I want to be able to live a normal life,” she says. “I want to get up in the morning. I want to be able to go to the grocery store or the theater, and feel comfortable that I’m still, at 90 and hopefully even longer, doing the kinds of things I want to do.”

Swan Pilates
11901 N. First Avenue, Oro Valley
Costs vary depending on which package is selected, but everyone begins with a few private lessons.