Harvard Women’s Health Watch
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.
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.