“I swear by Pilates in my 80s for keeping me mobile and pain-free”

Octogenarian Mary Lee loves how Pilates helps preserve her independence. Here’s her story – and how to get started yourself.

At the age of 86, Mary Lee cherishes her independence. She walks her dogs, loves gardening, and cooks family meals.

The octogenarian from Gloucestershire puts her strength and suppleness down to her regular Pilates practice.

“I don’t consider myself old,” she says. “Pilates enables me to live my life how I want to and stay independent.”

Two women sat on pilates mats in an exercise studioCredit: Adele Cherreson Cole
Mary Lee (right) with Pilates instructor Penny Johnsen

Pilates is a low impact series of exercises focusing on core strength, posture, balance and flexibility. It can be practised on a mat or on a reformer machine.

Lee, a former antiques dealer, admits that until 13 years ago she had never joined an exercise class, let alone tried Pilates.

“I have always walked my dogs, played tennis, and swam regularly,” she tells Saga Exceptional. “I only went to Pilates because a neighbour persuaded me to – then she backed out.”

Lee went alone to her first Pilates class. She says that not only did she enjoy the session, but she noticed an immediate improvement in her posture and gait – and relief from a long-term twinge.

“I’d had a permanent niggling pain in my sacrum, but after my first class of Pilates, it was gone,” she says. “It straightened me out. I hadn’t been straight since I carried my children on my hip. And I’ve never had that pain since.”


“The ultimate Pilates pin-up”

Lee fell in love with Pilates, and it’s a love that has endured. Her instructor, Penny Johnsen, says she’s an inspiration to her twice-weekly mat Pilates classmates at Calcot Spa, in Gloucestershire. Johnsen says that Lee helps her showcase intermediate moves to the rest of the group.

“Mary is the ultimate pin-up for Pilates,” she adds. “She shows just how, with regular workouts, Pilates can make a real difference to your body – and your life – in older age.”

“Age is never a barrier to fitness,” says Lee. “Not many 86-year-olds can achieve the Roll Over, and many younger Pilates students don’t think they can do it. But if I can, it shows they can work up to it, too.”

Lee doesn’t groan or struggle when she gets out of a chair. She can throw balls for her two spaniels and digs her own garden, as well as bending down to get a heavy roast out of her slow oven.

She says that Pilates has given her the confidence in her body to take up yoga for the first time. “I never thought I’d be capable of doing it properly, but I found I could. It’s easy, really.”

Lee treasures her independence

Lee enjoys her new yoga class, but she says it is 13 years of Pilates that has allowed her to carry on being independent and doing the things she enjoys. Top of her list is having a bath.

She says: “I do like a bath, especially after I’ve walked the dogs in the winter. Many of my friends can’t get in and out of them [the bath] any more, but I really don’t want to have to change mine for a shower.”

To help her clamber into her tub, Lee asked instructor Johnsen to particularly concentrate on certain exercises like the shoulder bridge and the hamstring stretch, as she found them so beneficial when practised regularly.

How Pilates helps older people

Stott Pilates-trained Johnsen, 52, teaches two classes a week at Calcot Spa, and tailors her routines to her clients’ needs.

She says as she came to Pilates later in life herself, she understands the benefits it can bring to older people.

“It’s good on so many levels,” says Johnsen. “Pilates is great for core strength, mobility, flexibility, suppleness, posture and balance, which are all important to maintain as we age. Like a well-oiled engine, Pilates keeps us ticking over.”

She adds that it’s the lesser-known benefits that make Pilates an appropriate exercise for older people. “Not often mentioned are the potential improvements to respiratory health, brain health, and mental health,” she says.

The Stott Pilates method of breathing during exercises can also help increase lung capacity and rest the brain, Johnsen says.

Participating in a class is good for socialisation too, especially for those living alone, with a regular commitment adding structure and routine.


Lee’s Pilates pearls of wisdom

  • Anyone of any age can do body control Pilates – have a go!
  • It’s not expensive – all you need is a mat (don’t spend more than £20) and a class.
  • Keep it up – once you start, go regularly.
  • It’s not a quick fix – you’ve got to go regularly to make a real difference.

Getting started with Pilates in later life

Johnsen’s advice is to join a class that you feel comfortable with.

“You want little challenges so you can feel like you are progressing,” she says. “But it’s about building up slowly. If you keep going, the improvements will keep you going.”

She has also shared two exercises to try:

Swimming on all fours

Johnsen suggests trying this exercise for the first time in front of a mirror.

  1. Kneel on the mat on all fours, making sure shoulders are above hands and hips are above knees, with equal weight across both sides of the body. Make sure you have the same distance between your hips and ribs as when standing. Keep your spine in a neutral position and in line with your head, which is looking at the mat.
  2. Inhale deeply through your nose to prepare.
  3. Exhale through your mouth and lift your right arm and left leg, forming a horizontal line between the tips of your fingers and toes.
  4. Inhale and return to your starting position.
  5. Exhale and lift your left arm and right leg, forming a horizontal line between the tips of your fingers and toes.
  6. Inhale and return to your starting position and repeat.

Slow Swan Dive

  1. Lie prone, with legs hip width apart and rotated laterally. Place your arms in line with your head, with stable shoulders and your nose hovering over the mat.
  2. Inhale deeply through the nose to prepare. Pull in your abdominals and push your pubic bone into the floor.
  3. Exhale through your mouth and raise your head and shoulders off the mat, as if you’re rolling away a marble with your nose.
  4. Carry on through the out breath, pushing up from your palms, so the bottom rib and elbows come off the floor.
  5. Ideally, lift up to the point where you are looking ahead. Your pelvis will be partially raised. Go as high as you feel comfortable.
  6. Inhale deeply to pause.
  7. On the next exhale, drift back down to the floor, leading from your chest. Articulate your spine, one vertebrae at a time, as you descend back to the start position.
  8. Repeat the exercise 2-4 times, then stretch and rest.
Adele Cherreson Cole

Written by Adele Cherreson Cole


Adele Cherreson Cole is an experienced writer and editor, working as a journalist, author, lecturer, and within the corporate world. Her career grew from journalism in women’s magazines and national newspapers, expanding into corporate communications, PR and marketing.

She loves Pilates, horse riding, walking, gardening, going to the spa, and larking about with her two grandchildren.