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The surprising power of one-pound weights

From her voice on the phone, I could tell that Judy was in trouble. Usually so strong and resonant today her voice sounded broken and in pain. Her body was being attacked on two fronts. She described a crushing weakness; her legs felt weighted down; she couldn’t hoist her head off the pillow; impossible to lift a fork to her lips to eat. In addition, she was racked by an intense pain in her bowels; some kind of blockage. The doctors could not confirm whether this was related to her generalized body weakness.

Judy is in her mid-eighties. She began classes with me around the time I first started teaching Pilates. For 24 years Judy attended classes twice a week, often reaching for the heavier not the lighter weights. She was so strong that I often used her as an example, teasing the much younger students about the poundage she used. Now she was in a hospital bed, in a wing understaffed because of Covid. And she had been threatened, she told me, with these words: if she didn’t get strong enough to use the bathroom by herself, she would not even get the opportunity to go to a rehab hospital but would be shipped directly to long term care!

It was ridiculous and heartbreaking. My plan, if Covid restrictions allowed, was to head over to her bedside with a pair of one-pound weights. Sometimes just one pound is the all the added weight a body can tolerate, if any.


When weakness strikes


A couple of years back, I took a pair of my one-pound weights to another student of mine who was in Toronto General, across the street from Judy’s hospital. Bill was seventy, a fit guy who came regularly to my Pilates class with his wife. They used to take long daily walks and go lawn bowling every weekend. One day, Bill was no longer in class. His wife told me he was weakened by something the doctors didn’t understand and was in the hospital. One month later, he was still in hospital and I went to visit him with a pair of the small pink weights in my hand bag. He had deteriorated alarmingly. His face was gaunt, his breath shallow. Yet I could sense his spirit trying to rouse itself as he spoke about a canal trip he had made in the UK with his wife and sisters. The physio came in while we reminisced; and she was pleased to see the weights I’d brought him. She cleared me to do some simple arm exercises with Bill. A one pound weight in each hand was a good place to start. Besides, it was all he could manage.

Watching Bill struggle to curl his elbow and bring the small weight up to his shoulder, an image floated across my mind’s eye: of him standing in class holding much heavier hand weights while doing a series of vigorous squats.


Weakness can come swiftly


I recognize that I can be optimistic about the benefits of exercise to the point of naivety. I am overly confident in my beliefs about what exercise can achieve, and this blithe confidence can blind me to the reality that sometimes people do not get stronger, but weaker.

I remember acknowledging the same naivety in myself (if that’s the right word) the first time my mother was in hospital as a result of a fall. Up to that point she had been strong, flexible and very active. She had not experienced a single hospital visit except for my birth and my sister’s, and one bout with gall stones.

Then four months before her 90th birthday she was moving a large Christmas wreath from a box to the front door of her condo unit when she tripped on something on the floor. She could not see for the wreath in her arms, and fell hard. She shattered not a hip, but two vertebrae in her back, and badly bruised a couple of ribs. She had to go by ambulance to the Rockyview Hospital in Calgary, came home the next day, but then had to return a week later because of pain in her back and overall body weakness. The weakness, it turned out, had nothing to do with the fall, and the vertebrae and ribs would eventually heal by themselves. The doctors had found something amiss in her heart—something new for her. Her legs swelled up and almost overnight she gained five to seven pounds of water.  Stalled heart failure, a doctor told me when I called from Toronto. Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Stalled, he explained, means the conditioned is not advanced and is stabilized for now. He prescribed oxygen.

This is not who these people are


I wanted to tell my mother’s doctor the same thing that I longed to tell the team taking care of Bill, and of Judy. This is not who these people are. The doctors and therapists only see their ages, their ‘vitals’, their drained faces and weakened bodies. Whereas I had seen them lift weights while standing on one foot. Or performing push-ups on a mobile ball. My mom, at eighty-four, had appeared as the photo model in one of my Pilates books, performing strength exercises for seniors using weights and resistance bands. Yet the next time I visited Calgary, she was using a walker and on oxygen for life. Nonetheless, she was still using her one-pound weights.

I visited Bill four or five times and could see that he was getting weaker, not stronger. He had now been in the hospital four to five months and had one surgery (which he had been too weak to tolerate); and he was totally bedridden. I noticed the little pink weights were still on the bedside table. Bill died later that year peacefully at home; nothing more could be done for him.

When Judy was transported to Bridgepoint, a rehab hospital in Toronto, she called me and told me that she was ‘religiously’ using the pink weights I’d dropped off for her at the reception desk. Because of Covid the place was understaffed. The physio could only work with Judy once a week as she was responsible for 31 patients! Judy knew she had to do the exercises by herself in her room. By now she was folding one small dumbbell on top of the other and lifting the two of them up at the same time. Soon she added more weight. On our next call, she told me how pleased the physios and nurses were with her progress and that they were sending her home soon.

Judy’s first online class with me, after being absent for five months, was on May 2nd of this year. I was so thrilled to see her name pop up on my Zoom screen that I almost clicked ‘remove’ instead of ‘admit.’ She was back! And she was now lifting much more than one pound. I am still optimistic to a passionate degree about the benefits of exercise. Though experience has shown me it’s not a magical cure. Yet from Judy’s example, I would say it’s certainly worth a try.

My blog will return in the fall.

Students, please remember there are no classes between June 19 and July 10th,2022.

Online Pilates classes start again on Monday, July 11th.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: The information and services provided in the blogs, videos, website and classes are provided with the understanding that Colleen Craig is not engaged in rendering legal, medical counselling or other professional services or advice.

We highly recommend that you watch the video first before attempting an exercise. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort.

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