Pilates and the Lymphatic System – Boosting Immunity
Legend has it that Joseph Pilates invented some of his machines when he was interned on the Isle of Man where he is said to have exercised his fellow prisoners. Health conditions were bad and yet – according to Pilates legend – none of the prisoners fell sick during the infamous flu epidemic. So could taking a Pilates class improve immunity? Is this yet another reason for starting regular classes before all those autumn and winter infections?
Joseph Pilates emphasised blood circulation (for “bodily house cleaning”) and breath (squeezing out “every atom of old air”). This certainly goes well with our modern understanding of the immune system:
Part of our immune system is the lymphatic system. Understanding this system is becoming increasingly important, not just for your normal immune system but also for autoimmune diseases and especially if you work in post-surgery rehabilitation, say post breast cancer, where there is a risk of lymphoedema, that is, swelling of a limb caused by problems in lymphatic drainage. So I’ll explain this system in a little more detail for those who are interested.
Lymph is a fluid, like blood or interstitial fluid. As a matter of fact, these fluids are all related. Blood is simply fluid that contains red blood cells and circulates through our arteries and veins. The red blood cells are designed to bind and then slowly release oxygen which our cells need for their metabolism. Apart from oxygen, cells also need other nutrients. This is delivered via the interstitial fluid. Interstitial fluid is just a colourless fluid that is part of blood but at some stage seeps out of the same arteries that carries the blood – as a matter of fact, you can think of interstitial fluid as blood without the red blood cells and a fluid that is full of nutrients for the cells. This fluid is found all over the body, bathing the cells in nutrients – imagine it like a bath with nourishing oil for the skin. And like bathwater, this fluid gets “dirty” after a while. This “dirt” is produced by the cells during their normal metabolism. It is potentially toxic and needs to be removed to keep the cells healthy and also to allow fresh interstitial fluid – the stuff full of nutrients – to re-enter the space. The “old” fluid – the fluid that is now full of toxins – is lymph. So lymph needs to be removed and ideally cleaned of toxins. So how does that happen?
Lymph gets transported away through a network of lymphatic vessels that run parallel to the arteries and veins. These vessels transport the lymph back to the thoracic ducts (situated by the collarbones) where the cleaned up lymph – the toxins are filtered out in the lymphatic nodes which are found all over the body and the lymph passes through on its way back to the thoracic ducts – is released back into the blood stream. This is important – imagine if this fluid just stayed put: swollen areas full of lymph but also blood that became less and less fluid. The filtration though the lymph nodes is also important as otherwise the toxins would just re-enter the blood stream.
So lymph is transported in the lymphatic vessels.But here lies a potential problem – but also the reason why Pilates might be a good therapeutic intervention for the lymphatic system: unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system hasn’t got a pump (the heart is the pump for the cardiovascular system) so it relies on two things to move lymph: movement of muscles and breath. Can you see how Pilates had a point when he talked about circulation and breathing to “clear the bodily house”?
And there is more: The lymphatic flow can also be inhibited by tight tissue or scarring. Pilates generally emphasises stretching and elongation, creating space rather than building dense muscle tissue. Pilates also mobilises joints where most of the lymph nodes are situated and moves the “core”, especially the area around the navel where the cysterna chyli, an important collection point for lymph, is situated. Most importantly for me, Pilates is also largely carried out lying down – now I am not saying that we should lie down all day long. In real life the lymphatic system also functions when we are standing – but in a rehabilitation setting it means that lymph can flow back easier without having to work against gravity.
There is a lot more to be said about this but I shall leave it at this. Remember also that Pilates isn’t the only movement therapy that can help the lymphatic system: walking, Yoga and, in fact, all gentle movement is beneficial. Gentle is really quite important for anyone with a compromised lymphatic system – not a normal healthy person but anyone post-surgery, for example: increased blood flow also means increased lymph, so if the lymphatic system is already overburdened exercises that brings more blood to an area might just overload the lymphatic system and cause more swelling. The same applies to heavy weights – so leave off those extra springs for anyone with a compromised lymphatic system!
So any gentle movement that works muscles and improves breathing is good for your lymph – a walk to the pub might do it, minus the alcohol which unfortunately is toxin for the lymphatic system! But maybe this article has inspired you to take a Pilates class before you make your way to the pub. It might just be the thing you need to help your lymphatic flow and stimulate your immune system. Let’s hope you survive this winter without a sniffle…..
I am running regular workshops for qualified movement teachers (Pilates, Yoga, gym instructors etc) on working with anyone affected by cancer and a compromised lymphatic system (independent teachers as well as those working for the NHS). If you are interested to find out more, contact me email@example.com.
by Katharina (Kat) Hesse ©