Pilates (pronounced pie-LAH-tes) or Physical Mind method, is a series of non-impact exercises designed by Joseph Pilates to develop strength, flexibility, balance, and inner awareness.


Two women demonstrate how to use a Pilates Universal Reformer. Pilates consists of nonimpact exercises that help develop strength, flexibility, and balance.

Two women demonstrate how to use a Pilates Universal Reformer. Pilates consists of nonimpact exercises that help develop strength, flexibility, and balance.


Pilates is a form of strength and flexibility training that can be done by someone at any level of fitness. The exercises can be adapted for people who have limited movement or who use wheelchairs.

Pregnant women who do Pilates exercises can develop body alignment, improve concentration, and develop body shape and tone after pregnancy. According to Joseph Pilates, “You will feel better in 10 sessions, look better in 20 sessions and have a completely new body in 30 sessions.”

Although Pilates is often associated with dancers, athletes, and younger people who are interested in improving their physical strength and flexibility, a simplified version of some Pilates exercises is being used to lower the risk of hospital-related deconditioning in older adults. A Canadian study of hospitalized patients over age 70 found that those who were given a set of Pilates exercises that could be performed in bed recovered more rapidly than a control group given a set of passive range-of-motion exercises.


Joseph Pilates, the founder of the Pilates method (also simply referred to as “the method”), was born in Germany in 1880. As a frail child with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever, he was determined to become stronger. He dedicated himself to building both his body and his mind through practices that included yoga, zen, and ancient Roman and Greek exercises. His conditioning regime worked, and he became an accomplished gymnast, skier, boxer, and diver.

JOSEPH PILATES (1883–1967)

Joseph Pilates was a German fitness buff born in 1880 near Dusseldorf, Germany, and was responsible for developing a series of about 100 exercise techniques known as the Pilates method, which has become a boom in the exercise industry; there were just five Pilates studios in the world in 1976—by the late 1990s, there were more than 500 in the United States alone. Though it has become a twenty-first-century fitness craze, the regimen was created by Pilates while he interned in an English prison camp during the First World War. His fascination with fitness led him to develop exercises that could be done by bedridden prisoners to maintain strength and flexibility. He attached springs to hospital beds to create resistance, which was the beginning of his popular Pilates method workout machine known as the Reformer. After the war, he returned to Germany and worked as a fitness trainer. His reputation as a trainer grew to the extent that he was commissioned by the German government to train the Hamburg city police and the German Army.

In 1926, he moved to New York City and opened his first dedicated Pilates studio. Pilates piqued the interest of the general public for a brief spell in the 1970s but the exercises were a passing fad. Much of its success and longevity in the late 1990s and into the 2000s can be attributed to the number of celebrities who rave about it in the media. Current practitioners swear that Pilates has improved their bodies in ways that other forms of exercise never could—making them leaner, stronger, and sculpted.


(I C Rapoport/Getty Images)

Pilates emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1926. That same year he opened the first Pilates studio in New York City. Over the years, dancers, actors, and athletes came to his studio to heal, condition, and align their bodies.

Joseph Pilates died at age 87 in a fire at his studio. Although his strength enabled him to escape the flames by hanging from the rafters for over an hour, he died from smoke inhalation. He believed that ideal fitness is “the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”


Over 500 exercises were developed by Joseph Pilates. “Classical” exercises, according to the Pilates Studio in New York, involve several principles: concentration, centering, flowing movement, and breath. Some instructors teach only the classical exercises originally taught by Joseph Pilates. Others design new exercises that are variations upon these classical forms in order to make the exercises more accessible for a specific person.

The appeal of the Pilates method to a wide population, coupled with a new interest in it on the part of rehabilitation therapists, suggests that further research studies may soon be underway. Dancers and actors originally embraced the Pilates method as a form of strength training that did not create muscle bulk. Professional and amateur athletes also use these exercises to prevent reinjury. Sedentary people find Pilates to be a gentle, nonimpact approach to conditioning. Pilates equipment and classes can be found in hospitals, health clubs, spas, and gyms.


A system of physical, mental, and breathing exercises developed in India.
A form of meditation that emphasizes direct experience.

Two primary exercise machines are used for Pilates, the Universal Reformer and the Cadillac, along with several smaller pieces of equipment. The Reformer resembles a single bed frame and is equipped with a carriage that slides back and forth and adjustable springs that are used to regulate tension and resistance. Cables, bars, straps, and pulleys allow the exercises to be done from a variety of positions. Instructors usually work with their clients on the machines for 20–45 minutes. During this time, they are observing and giving feedback about alignment, breathing, and precision of movement. The exercises are done slowly and carefully so that the movements are smooth and flowing. This requires focused concentration and muscle control. The session ends with light stretching and a cool-down period.

Once the client has learned the basics from an instructor, either in one-on-one lessons or in a class, it is possible to train at home using videos. Exercise equipment for home use is available and many exercises can be preformed on a mat.

A private session costs between US$45–75, depending on location. Pilates is not specifically covered by insurance although it may be covered when the instructor is a licensed physical therapist.


The Pilates method is not a substitute for good physical therapy, although it has been increasingly used and recommended by physical therapists since the mid-1980s. People with chronic injuries are advised to see a physician.



Several studies have been done on the effectiveness of the Pilates method for a variety of patients. One study compared female breast cancer patients. A group that performed Pilates in addition to home exercises had improved outcomes on a variety of scores when compared to a group who only performed home exercises. Another study found that in elderly individuals Pilates significantly improved balance, general fitness, and quality of life factors.



Aikman, Louise. Pilates Step-By-Step. New York: Rosen Central, 2011.

Isacowitz, Rael. Pilates Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011.

Staugaard-Jones, Jo Ann. The Anatomy of Exercise and Movement for the Study of Dance, Pilates, Sports, and Yoga. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2011.


Dunleavy, Kim. “Pilates Fitness Continuum: Post-Rehabilitation and Prevention Pilates Fitness Programs.” Rehab Management 23, no. 9 (October 2010): 10.

Lim, Edwin, et al. “Effects of Pilates-based Exercises on Pain and Disability in Individuals with Persistent Nonspecific Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy 14, no. 2 (February 2011): 70–80.


“Pilates for Beginners: Explore the Core.” MayoClinic.com . August 18, 2016. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthylifestyle/fitness/in-depth/pilates-for-beginners/art20047673 (accessed January 20, 2017).

Sarnataro, Barbara Russi. “The Benefits of Pilates.” WebMD. May 27, 2009. http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/the-benefits-of-pilates (accessed January 19, 2017).


Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, 1750 E Northrop Blvd., Ste. 200, Chandler, AZ, 91403, (800) 446-2322, customerservice@afaa.com, http://www.afaa.com .

American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564, support@acefitness.org, http://www.fitness.gov .

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.