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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, 1750 E Northrop Blvd., Ste. 200, Chandler, AZ, 91403, (800) 446-2322, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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, email@example.com, http://www.fitness.gov .
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Tish Davidson, AM