Pilates can be done at any age and helps with chronic pain and depression.

Pilates can be done at any age and helps with chronic pain and depression.

After Shari Berkowitz was injured during a dance performance on stage, doctors told the actress that one wrong move could leave her paralyzed for life. She had suffered three herniated discs in her neck, with one protruding from her spine. Months of physical therapy took her out of the danger zone, and then she discovered Pilates.

While excellent doctors and physical therapists helped her with the initial healing, she said Pilates gave her “strength and confidence in my ability to move — the confidence that I could move again,” she said. The training led to her full recovery and inspired her to become a Pilates instructor and open a studio.

“Pilates has been so transformative for me that when I see a client develop that physical and emotional strength it’s extremely rewarding,” she said.

Berkowitz isn’t the only Pilates devotee talking about the transformative powers of exercise. Many studios publish a phrase attributed to their founder, the German boxer and gymnast Joseph Pilates, which says: “In ten sessions you feel better, in twenty you get better, in thirty you have a whole new body”.

While no exercise can give us a new body, devotees say that low-weight resistance training can help our bodies in important ways by strengthening the core muscles – the “core” – around the spine.

Furthermore, scientific research confirms a number of impressive health benefits. Studies suggest that Pilates can help improve muscle strength and flexibility, reduce chronic pain, and lessen anxiety and depression.

Pilates gained widespread attention in the late 1990s, when celebrities like Madonna and Uma Thurman touted its benefits, and aerobics enthusiasts sought a lower-impact option.

But a few years ago the method seemed to be on the wane. Pessimists predicted a drastic end as newer, sweatier fitness trends like spinning and boot camps exploded.

Due in part to the pandemic, however, many people’s priorities have shifted from strenuous exercise to burn calories to activities that also promote the mind-body connection, said Cedric Bryant, president and chief scientific officer of the American Council on Exercise.

The method is growing again. Most market researchers don’t look at it separately from yoga, but the US International Health and Sports Association has ranked it as the most popular gym activity for women.

It now includes a wide range of offerings, from small private studios with individual classes and national pilates franchises to app-based virtual classes and expanded “power” pilates.

So, is it worth trying to incorporate Pilates into your exercise routine? And which style suits you? If you’re intrigued by the workout, here’s what you need to know.

What is pilates?

A Pilates workout is usually performed on a mat or chair and includes many strength and flexibility exercises found in other forms of resistance training. “There’s nothing mysterious about Pilates,” said Alycea Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York and author of several guides to the method.

But there are some elements that make it unique. First, the method encourages participants to focus on breathing and cultivate the mind-body connection, paying special attention to how all movement originates from the core. The exercises are repeated in sets that strategically work the muscles without exhausting them.

Many Pilates exercises also use special equipment, including spring-based resistance machines designed to support the spine and target specific muscle groups. The most popular machine, called “reformer” [reformador]looks like a small bed with a sliding platform connected to a system of springs, ropes and pulleys.

Who can benefit?

The quick answer is: everyone. Serious.

The method can be adapted to a spectrum of fitness goals, ages and abilities – for professional dancers, athletes, pregnant women, octogenarians who want to improve their balance.
“Anyone can do it,” said Carrie Samper, director of Pilates education at Equinox. “You don’t have to be 25 and be a dancer for Cirque du Soleil. You can be 85 and start doing Pilates.”

While it brings rewards in its own right, some people consider it a complement to other physical activities.

“He really taught me how to move my body,” said Chris Robinson, a martial artist and owner of the Pilates and Sports studio in San Diego, California. “And I found that I could apply this technique to anything.”

Doctors and physical therapists generally recommend the method as a way to rehabilitate people recovering from injuries.

“It can serve as a bridge back to more normal activity,” Bryant said. It can also help reduce the chances of someone getting injured, he said, because of its ability to improve core stability, balance, flexibility and posture.

“We know that when they are inadequate you increase the risk of various musculoskeletal and joint injuries.”

Pilates can also benefit pregnant or postpartum women by safely strengthening the core and conditioning the pelvis.

“It’s a great way to strengthen your pelvic floor without doing hundreds of Kegels,” said Sarah Clampett, a physical therapist and head of clinical operations at Origin, a health care company based in Los Angeles, California. “Anyone with pelvic floor problems or dysfunction can benefit from Pilates.”

What does pilates not do?

The traditional method is not cardiovascular training. “The further you go, the more it feels like cardio,” said Berkowitz, who now trains instructors through his online studio, The Vertical Workshop.

“But you’ll never get to the point where you really challenge your cardiovascular system.”

It is also not equivalent to lifting heavy weights. “There are limitations to the force it creates,” Samper said. “It’s not the same as lifting weights or bench presses. You’re not going to build the same muscle, because we never do Pilates moves to exhaustion.”

It’s also not the best workout for chatting with a friend or watching TV. “You have to be really present and pay attention to where your body is in space and what it’s doing, and not everyone wants that,” Samper said. Without that level of concentration, you probably won’t reap as many benefits — and you can still get hurt.

So how often should you do it?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises adults to devote 150 minutes to moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two days to strength training per week. Pilates would be at the bottom.

But while you’ll get benefits from doing it once or twice a week, exercise experts agree that three times a week is best. That’s the “sweet spot,” Samper said.
Is there a “pilates excess”? Not really, if you mix up your practice.

“If you think it’s the perfect thing for you, there’s nothing wrong with doing it five or more times a week,” Bryant said.

What type is best for you?

Not all workouts called Pilates are created equal.

Experienced instructors often recommend starting with individual or small group classes so you can learn the basics. “The ideal situation is to be in the studio,” Robinson said. “You have all the apparatus to help you and an instructor to guide you.”

But for many people this is simply not feasible, he said. One-on-one training sessions usually start at $75 or more per session, while virtual classes can be a fraction of that. “There’s still a lot to gain virtually, if that’s all you can do,” Robinson said. “A little Pilates is better than none.”

The workout you connect with may depend on your specific goals and needs. “If you’re a healthy person and you don’t have any musculoskeletal issues — you just want a good workout — take a Pilates class at the gym,” said Carrie Lamb, an instructor at US company Balanced Body and a physical therapist in Golden, Colorado. But if you’re recovering from an injury or dealing with chronic pain, you can benefit from a more intimate setting.

For people looking for a workout that helps them achieve cardio and muscle-building goals, consider checking out the latest and hybrid Pilates offerings that accelerate classic moves and promise to get your heart pumping.

Finding the right instructor is crucial

To get the most out of the method, look for “a well-trained and qualified instructor” who puts clients’ safety first, Bryant said.

As it has become more popular, more people with very little training are advertising themselves as instructors.

“Some people say they teach Pilates and only go to one weekend class,” Lamb said, while others “have gone through comprehensive training and spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to learn.”

Before signing up for any type of Pilates, check the instructor’s credentials and look for someone who has completed a certification program that requires at least 400 hours of training and continuing education, Bryant said.

Ask the potential instructor how he or she can help you achieve your specific goals. Find someone who will listen carefully and understand you as an individual, Bryant said, “rather than the expert telling you what you need.”

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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