I tried pilates to cure my bad back – here's what happened next – The Telegraph

On a Friday afternoon around this time last year, I pressed send on the weekly weather column I write for the Telegraph and leant back in my office chair to notice a curious burning in my shoulder that stretched all the way down to the elbow.
I dismissed it as nothing more than a mutated version of the typical aches and pains any writer gets after a long spell in front of a screen.
It was only when I was cycling home that evening and discovered I couldn’t lift my neck properly to assess the oncoming traffic that I realised there might be a more serious problem.
The next morning I woke up with a right shoulder that had seized up so badly overnight that it was clamped against my chin in the manner of Lurch from the Addams Family.
The eventual diagnosis was a slipped disc between the C5 and C6 vertebrae in the cervical spine. I was in agony and to compound matters due to get married the following month.
My physio told me if I was to sort myself out in time, avoid surgery, and ensure that the same thing didn’t happen again, it was time to start making some major changes. If I didn’t, she warned, I might no longer be able to do the thing that I love the most (after my wife): write.
And so I embarked on the long and – often painful – path that 12 months later has brought me to a mat in an upstairs studio of the Light Centre in Belgravia, being urged by my instructor Sam Webster to perfect a mermaid stretch and trying not to whimper about the ache in my hamstrings.
For I am now a pilates man. And I am not alone.
As ever more of us sit down and stare at screens for a living, back pain is becoming the great leveller of our age. Humans are evolved to move, twist, bend and roam, not sit hunched in an office chair for 12 hours a day.
In the technological era we have moved from a species that is dependent on our bodies to our brains. And the damage we are doing to ourselves in the process is profound.
The latest Health and Safety Executive figures show nearly 10 million working days are lost each year for adults aged 25-64 due to back pain costing the UK economy some £12bn a year. Around 80 per cent of us will suffer from back pain at some point in our lives. 
It is men aged between 45 and 54 who are deemed most at risk of developing problems, an age bracket that is creeping down all the time.
I am 32 and have always been reasonably physically fit but my physio tells me she is increasingly seeing people my age with degenerative conditions a decade earlier than they would typically have been afflicted a generation ago.
Pilates and its close relative yoga (the former is a western invention that focuses on strength and the latter an eastern one that places greater value on flexibility) are increasingly seen as crucial weapons in the war against back pain.
Accordingly despite being an activity traditionally perceived as restricted to women, ever more men are now taking up pilates. Not even necessarily as a hobby, fun though it is, rather a necessary tool of keeping going in their lives.
The 2016 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence  guidance on the management of back pain recognises a combination of approaches often works best – exercise, psychological therapies as well as manipulative therapy. This ties in with a new authoritative study published in the US this month, which proved regular yoga classes relieves lower back pain as effectively as physiotherapy.
I consult a few of my fellow male attendees at the Light Centre and hear stories remarkably similar to my own.    
Nick Medd, 54, is a former banker for HSBC and nowadays works as a head-hunter. The married father of three says his back pain struck in his early 40s, at a time when he was sitting at his desk for 12 hours a day.
“I went to see an osteopath who just told me I was spending my whole life sitting down and if I wanted to continue to work I had to change my lifestyle. I would sit on the train to work be at a desk or otherwise be on a flight. My wife told me to start standing on the commute in from Basingstoke but it didn’t make a difference.”
Instead he started pilates and now attends classes two or three times a week in between work. He thinks it would be far better if businesses encouraged their staff to take up pilates to prevent back problems before they emerge. “The benefits to me are so obvious,” he says.
Pilates was, in fact, the invention of a man. The early 20th century German pioneer Joseph Pilates patented the technique of using control of the body to strengthen and condition it. The concept also owes something to the "medical gymnastics" developed in 1813 by Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish fencing master and romantic novelist.
It focuses largely on breathing and developing core strength. I realised how seriously this was something I lacked in my first class when a mass of cramp formed in my gluteus maximus sending shockwaves down to my calf. I leapt up from the mat yelping in pain, much to the amusement of my fellow classmates.
That was in a local leisure centre where I am often the only man out of 20 women in the room. In my experience the more expensive classes in the city tend to be more mixed sex affairs.
I supplement these occasional pilates classes with my own stretches in the morning and night, and as regularly as I can during the day as well.
So what differences have I noticed? Firstly, my posture. I stand far straighter than I used to and sit better, too. My body feels stronger, and I have developed small bulges of muscle around the shoulder blades where there was none before. I still can’t touch my toes – and on busy writing weeks feel occasional stabs of pain in my shoulders – but I am getting there.
Pilates focuses on the deep postural muscles, under the abdominals.  The author Martin Amis, another devotee, described the strengthening effects as while not sufficient to make his gut disappear, certainly enough to enable him to suck it in when an attractive woman walks by on the beach.
He also once neatly surmised what pilates had done for him. "I stopped groaning," he said. "When I get out of the car now, I don't go arrggghhh."
And for us devotees that, quite simply, is what it is all about.