Standing Tall

The longer you sit at your desk, the more your posture resembles the curved, compressed arch of a camel's hump -- and the more uncomfortable you feel. Your back stands to suffer long-term misalignment as a result of slumping, while the resulting impaired breathing can lead to chronic muscle tension and drag your energy level down.

With its emphasis on core strength and alignment, Pilates counters these stresses by helping you look -- and feel -- a little taller. "This particular fitness discipline aims to create stability and freedom through the entire body by targeting the muscle groups that support the spine," says New York City-based fitness and Pilates instructor James Darling. That includes the muscles deep within the back, abdomen, and pelvis. By focusing equally on strengthening and lengthening, the following Pilates favorites will foster a buoyant support system for your spine, bringing deeper breathing, more energy, and posture that's both graceful and effortless.

Spine Stretch Forward
What It Does
Creates space between the vertebrae, lengthens the muscles of the back, and reduces lower back pain. Counteracts stress by calming the nervous system.

How to Do It
Sit on the floor with legs straight and spine tall. Drop your chin into your chest and contract your core, as if you're trying to curl your torso up and over a beach ball. Focus on drawing your center in as opposed to curving your spine. Rest your hands where they fall, and breathe here for 30 seconds to a minute. Slowly roll back up to the starting position. Repeat six times.


Double-Leg Stretch
What It Does
Strengthens the core, particularly the lower abdominal muscles, which help stabilize the pelvis and keep the vertebrae of your lower spine in alignment.

How to Do It
Lie on your back with knees drawn in toward your chest, hands resting on your knees, and head and shoulders lifted off the mat.

As you inhale, straighten the legs to a 45-degree angle and stretch your arms alongside your body and up over head.

Exhale and release, returning to the starting position, keeping your head and shoulders lifted off the mat. Repeat six times.

What It Does
Wrings tension out of the spine and stale air from the lungs, while stretching the backs of the legs and the shoulders. Combats everyday backaches that come from tight muscles.

How to Do It
Sit tall with legs extended and arms in a T, spine long. Inhale, drawing your belly button toward your spine. Exhale and twist your torso to the left as you bend forward at the waist, extending your right hand to your pinkie toe (as if you're "sawing" off your toe). As you twist, squeeze your inner thighs and buttocks and draw your abs in even tighter. Hold for five breaths, then switch. Repeat six times.

Text by Kate Hanley

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