Pilates: The Benefits of Pilates Exercises (cont.)

"Unless you are taught how to move and discover with your teacher what is blocking you (for example, keeping your shoulders up too high), you will never achieve body symmetry," Galliano says. "When you start getting control of your body, it gives you a great degree of satisfaction."

There's an intrinsic relevance to it, says Little Rock, Ark. internist Hoyte Pyle, MD, who has been practicing Pilates for five years. Instead of working major muscle groups in isolation, he says, "Pilates works the whole body in synergy," which is how we should be moving on a daily basis.

The Roots of Pilates Exercises

The discipline was created by German-born Joseph H. Pilates a century ago. A sickly child plagued with asthma and rickets, he grew up to be obsessed about the perfect body. He sought a discipline to combine the physique of the ancient Greeks with the meditative strength of the East.

The result was a system of exercises he called "contrology," requiring intense concentration and centered on a strong abdomen, deep stretching, and focused breathing. It worked for him. Joseph Pilates became a boxer, diver, skier, gymnast, yoga devotee -- and an incredible physical testament to his method.

Pilates taught his method to wounded English soldiers during World War I, using springs he removed from their hospital beds to assist them as he developed techniques to increase their range of motion. It was from these crude devices that he developed the equipment still used today, including the reformer, Cadillac, Wunda chair, ladder barrel, and spine corrector.

Pilates emigrated to the U.S. in 1926, teaching his method first to boxers and later ballet dancers, until the rest of the world caught on.

Apparatus or Mat?

Pilates himself rarely worked with groups. Most of his work was done one on one, so each person's exercises were tailored to meet his or her needs. But he used both mat exercises and equipment with his clients.

"Pilates was developed as a system," says George. "People will get the best benefits if they utilize it as a system, doing exercises on the mat and the equipment."

"The equipment can offer more variety of movement," adds Bowen, "but it's important to have experience in the mat work as well. It's portable, for one thing."

For someone who has limitations, equipment is a great place to begin, says Galliano.

"The equipment was really designed to help people do the mat work. It supports them while they do the action," she says, which is something they can't get in a mat class.

Bottom line? If you can afford it, teachers recommend doing both mat classes and work on the equipment.

Fusions of Pilates

It seems like everywhere you look, familiar exercise disciplines are taking on a new life with a Pilates twist. There are fusions of Pilates with everything from yoga and swimming to ballroom dancing and boxing.

"Right now, Pilates is sort of a nice, hot word," says George. "Everybody wants to fuse Pilates with everything because it's going to help sell it."

George's perspective?

"Any movement or exercise that's done well should be beneficial to the body," she says, "but it doesn't necessarily mean you're doing Pilates."

Pilates Is Not for Everyone

Eighty percent of adults experience back pain at some time in their lives. On any given day, 50% of adults have acute or chronic back pain, says Jupiter, Fla. physical therapist Michael L. Reed, DPT.

Pilates and other exercises that focus on the stability of the muscles that support the spine might seem like a perfect fit. But not all pain is the same, cautions Reed. Without a diagnosis for your back pain from a physician or health care professional, Pilates could do more harm than good, he says.

"You can't go to a non-medical practitioner that teaches Pilates and think that will resolve your back pain," says Reed. "That's the mistake people make."

That's not necessarily to say that Pilates won't help, says Reed, who uses Pilates in his rehabilitation studio. Movement training is a sensible way to manage pain, and non-weight-bearing exercises like Pilates can be done even by those struggling with pain, he says.

However, he warns, "it's advantageous to have a better idea what may be generating their symptoms first."

As any well-trained Pilates teacher will attest, without a proper diagnosis for the pain, even the best instructor cannot design a safe and effective exercise program.

Published October 4, 2007.

SOURCES: WebMD Feature: "Have You Tried Pilates Yet?" Siri Dharma Galliano, Pilates teacher; owner, Live Art Pilates Studio, Los Angeles. Aliesa George, Pilates instructor; owner, Centerworks Pilates, Wichita, Kan. Dan Westerhold, physical therapist and Pilates teacher, Seattle Pilates, Seattle. Kevin Bowen, co-founder and director of special projects, Pilates Method Alliance, Miami. Hoyte Pyle, MD, internist, Little Rock, Ark. Michael L. Reed, DPT, MSc, OCS, physical therapist; owner, SPINE rehabilitation and performance training studio, Jupiter, Fla.

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Last Editorial Review: 10/8/2007