Check out your gym or fitness center’s monthly group exercise class schedule and you’ll see an array of aerobics classes, a few early morning spinning classes, yoga, kickboxing, boot camp, and something called Pilates. Pilates and its benefits often befuddle the hulking 250 pound bodybuilders and cardio bunnies alike.
Some gym goers assume it’s a class for middle aged soccer moms to “sculpt, firm, and tone” their muscles to acquire a “long and lean” physique. What exactly is a “long, lean” physique? Are we talking Usain Bolt “long” or Kate Moss “lean”?
This “long and lean” topic sounds like something that would be featured in an episode of Seinfeld. As you can tell, these people have no idea what they are talking about and they do not know the many far reaching benefits of Pilates.
Pilates was pioneered by Joseph Pilates, a boxer, and trainer, in the early 20th century. Mr. Pilates’ techniques, which were based off Zen teachings and Yoga, helped many exercisers achieve a mind-body connection.
Pilates emphasizes painstaking, deliberate techniques, often involving the body’s own weight as resistance through its series of exercises (1). Much like resistance / strength training, Pilates serves as a more than adequate adjunct for modern physical therapy (2).
Following standard hip and knee reconstruction, Pilate’s techniques were helpful in accelerating recovery (2). Pilates was also proven effective in alleviating chronic lower back pain and restoring healthy lumbar spine functioning and stability (3).
Two groups of physically active, lower back pain sufferers received two different methods of treatment. The first group utilized specialized Pilates exercise equipment and engaged in exercises specific to combat pain and regain healthy spinal functioning, while the control group relied on more traditional care, such as consulting with physicians and specialists.
The group who used Pilates methods, showed a considerably lower level of functional disability throughout three, six, and 12 month follow up periods (3).
In a study conducted by Paraiba Valley University (Brazil), those who participated in 15 Pilates training sessions showed a markedly improved weight discharge in gait compared to those who didn’t (4).
Pilates in addition to standard chiropractic protocols proved beneficial to a 39-year-old woman with scoliosis, a spinal fusion procedure years earlier, and physical occupational demands (5). Pilates was proven helpful in activating both the transversus abdominis and obliquus internus, two muscles which are integral in providing thoracic and pelvic stability (6).
We now know that Pilates is effective in helping the sick, but how does Pilates benefit healthy people of all age groups?
A study conducted by researchers at Auburn University in 2004, suggested that the energy expenditure of an intermediate mat based Pilates workout may offer cardiovascular and metabolic benefits (7). Pilates if performed correctly will not cause excessive joint torque, overuse injuries, and “jarring” that is common with resistance training protocols.
Staving off these conditions is due to the controlled nature of the movements and using only your body as resistance (8). In youths, Pilates was shown to trigger weight loss, while proving to be enjoyable for its young participants, in a study conducted by British researchers at the University of Bristol (9).
The study showed noteworthy reductions in the Body Mass Index of its participants (9). In healthy individuals, Pilates improved flexibility according to researchers at the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation the University of Iowa (10). In healthy older adults, Pilates proved to be effective in improving posture (11).
In a study conducted by Australian researchers, the participants exhibited a lesser degree of kyphosis and sat with slightly increased lumbar extension after they had completed a program consisting of 20 Pilates sessions over 10 weeks (11). Pilates was also effective in eliciting a mind-body connection, improved mood, mental acuity, and physical performance of college students (12). Sleep quality was also improved (12), which most likely resulted in better moods and higher degree of concentration – characteristics necessary for optimal academic performance in college.
Joe Giandonato is a Philadelphia-area healthcare professional and personal trainer, he holds an M.S. in Exercise Science and has nearly a decade of personal training experience. Presently, he trains clients at Broad Street Fitness in Philadelphia, PA. More of his articles can be found at joshstrength.com.