HARVARD WOMEN’S HEALTH WATCH ARTICLE/FEBRUARY 2000 ISSUE

Pilates Incor­po­rates Mind and Body

Pilates body con­di­tion­ing is one of the most pop­u­lar forms of exer­cise today –nearly 500 stu­dios nation­wide teach the rig­or­ous exer­cise dis­ci­pline devel­oped by Joseph Pilates (pi-LAH-teez). A Ger­man boxer and fit­ness trainer, Pilates came to the United States in the 1920s and set up the first stu­dio in New York. His exer­cise method incor­po­rates into its 500 well-defined, con­trolled move­ments a phi­los­o­phy of focus and con­cen­tra­tion derived from his back­ground in yoga and Zen med­i­ta­tion. The Pilates method of con­di­tion­ing also uti­lizes spe­cial equip­ment and mats. In recent years, chain fit­ness cen­ters have begun to include Pilates-inspired exer­cises in their pro­grams. The exact Pilates method, how­ever, is a reg­is­tered trade­mark. If you want gen­uine Pilates train­ing, look for an instruc­tor with Pilates Stu­dio cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requires 600 hours of train­ing, which cov­ers anatomy instruc­tion, how to use the equip­ment, and how to do the exer­cises properly.

Com­pared with step aer­o­bics, cardio-kickboxing, or indoor cycling, Pilates relies less on “going for the burn” and more on grad­ual, method­i­cal place­ment and move­ment. Instruc­tion is pro­vided by a trained teacher on a one-to-one basis or in very small groups. Because of the small student-teacher ratio, you can begin Pilates exer­cises at your own fit­ness level and not worry as much as you might in a larger class that you will be left behind. The Pilates style of teach­ing also allows instruc­tors to tai­lor the exer­cises to age, abil­ity, and any pres­ence of prior injury.

PRECISE EXERCISES

Pilates exer­cises are designed to uni­formly develop mus­cles through the use of five spe­cial pieces of equip­ment and a padded mat. The equip­ment at the heart of the Pilates method was inspired by Joseph Pilates’ work dur­ing World War I. He designed exer­cise machin­ery for immo­bi­lized patients using spring ten­sion as resis­tance. Along that line, the clas­sic piece of stu­dio equip­ment, the Reformer, has pul­leys and cables that exer­cis­ers push or pull with their hands or feet. The equip­ment has hand– holds, sup­ports, and posi­tion­ing bars that exer­cis­ers use to stretch fur­ther and into posi­tions unreach­able on the mat alone.

Grav­ity allows the body to sup­ply its own resis­tance while on the mat. Com­par­a­tively few repetitions—10 at most—are needed for each exer­cise. Pilates move­ments focus on core mus­cle groups known as “the pow­er­house” –the abdomen, lower back, and but­tocks –and empha­size deep, coor­di­nated breath­ing. Pilates exer­cises aren’t jar­ring to joints, so if you have a his­tory of joint prob­lems you may be able to do them under the super­vi­sion of a trained instruc­tor with­out fear of injury or joint or mus­cle stress. Well-done Pilates exer­cises strengthen the trunk and pelvis so lower-back strain is rare, even among beginners.

FROM ARTHRITIS RELIEF TO BODY ENHANCEMENT

Phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, sports injury experts, and chi­ro­prac­tors have dis­cov­ered Pilates train­ing as a way for their clients to pre­vent or recover from soft-tissue injuries. Enthu­si­asts report relief from back, neck, and arthri­tis pain. It has even been intro­duced as a part of mus­cu­lar ther­apy for mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis suf­fer­ers. Addi­tion­ally, some of the exer­cises are par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial to women because they strengthen the mus­cles of the abdomen and pelvic floor, impor­tant for main­tain­ing con­ti­nence. They also help con­di­tion abdom­i­nal mus­cles before and after childbirth.

The Pilates method may be dif­fi­cult at first, but after a few ses­sions, par­tic­i­pants may feel enough dif­fer­ence in pos­ture and mus­cle tone, as well as reduced stress, to want to stick with it. And as we all know, stick­ing to a pro­gram is one of the great­est chal­lenges of exercising.

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