The Benefits of Pilates
Just what can Pilates exercises do for you?
By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
"I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They'd be happier." -- Joseph Hubertus Pilates, in 1965, age 86.
Runner or golfer, tennis player or new mom, chances are you've heard someone talking about the benefits of Pilates. Many types of people, at many levels of fitness, who have begun doing Pilates exercises say they've seen improvements in range of motion, flexibility, circulation, posture, and abdominal strength -- and decreases in back, neck and joint pain.
Forty years after his death, the system of exercises developed by Joseph Pilates has never been in such demand. But can the benefits of Pilates (puh-LAH-teez), the system of strengthening and stretching exercises designed to develop the body's core, mobilize the spine and build flexibility, really be that far-reaching?
Pilates Benefit No. 1: Body Awareness
Celebrity Pilates teacher Siri Dharma Galliano says Pilates -- when performed correctly and with the proper supervision -- can do all that and more.
"It is an education in body awareness," says Galliano, who owns Live Art Pilates studio in Los Angeles. "It changes your shape by educating you in daily life. When you're cooking, brushing your teeth ... the lessons are coming home to pull your stomach in and pull your shoulders down. There is an attention required (in doing the exercises) that changes your awareness" even after class.
"It teaches you how to train your mind and build symmetry and coordination in the body," adds Galliano. "And when you can get control of the little things, that's practicing willpower."
Aliesa George, a Pilates teacher in Wichita, Kan., agrees.
"The biggest benefit in my eyes would be personal awareness -- awareness of how you sit or how you stand or how you move and being able to relate those habits to the aches and pains and injuries you have or have had in the past," she says.
For example, she says, it can help make you aware of that chronic tweak in the neck you get from sitting at the computer all day with rounded shoulders and a phone cradled between ear and shoulder.
As a Pilates-trained physical therapist, Dan Westerhold says he sees a lot of clients with injuries or weakness of the postural muscles, as a result of work, lifestyle, or not exercising the right way.
"People sit slouched at computers all day, then go to the gym and work their extremities," says Westerhold, of Pilates Seattle. "They don't use their core."
Think of a tree, Pilates experts say. Does it have all its strength in its limbs? No. The tree is only as strong as its trunk and roots. Without a strong trunk, the tree would topple over.
It's the same for human bodies, say Pilates experts. If we don't concentrate on building a good foundation and a strong trunk or core, we'll end up tight in some places and weak in others, injury-prone and susceptible to the pitfalls of our occupation or chosen form of exercise.
Pilates Benefit No. 2: A Stronger Core
But how about flattening the abs? Can Pilates exercises really give you a washboard stomach?
Experts warn that it's important not to equate a stronger core with a flatter stomach.
"When people want 'flat abs,' they are usually looking for weight loss, not abdominal strength and core support," says George. "More than touting the benefits of Pilates for flat abs, we should be touting the benefits of Pilates for a stronger, healthy back and body. If along the way, you do the other components of fitness and trim the body down, yes, you're going to have a flatter midsection."
As you develop body awareness, stand straighter, and gain flexibility, "Pilates will shift your shape," says Galliano. "But just attending a group mat class may or may not change your body."
Kevin Bowen, co-founder of the Pilates Method Alliance and director of special projects, says it is important that abdominals are flexible, not just hard. "A flexible muscle is a strong muscle," says Bowen. "A hard muscle may feel good and give an interesting look, but if you don't have the flexibility and the balance and the functionality that you need to allow your body to function properly, sooner or later, it's going to show up someplace else."
Pilates Benefit No. 3: Body Control
Galliano, who has sculpted the bodies of Madonna, Cameron Diaz, Sting, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Uma Thurman, says Pilates works because it teaches you how to move.