From professional athletes and celebrities to stay-at-home moms and seniors, folks are turning to a form of fitness that gets impressive results without taxing the body. What's their secret? Pilates!
Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-tees) strengthens the body through a series of gentle, precise and systematic movements. The movements improve muscle strength, flexibility, balance and posture without stressing the joints.
"Unlike yoga, Pilates doesn't require you to hold poses for long periods of time," says Laura Wren, owner of The Pilates Center of Oklahoma. "It offers a smooth flow between the exercises.
"Pilates strengthens the body by concentrating on key muscle groups, primarily the 'powerhouse' area—the abdominal muscles, lower back, hips and behind," she writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
"There is also a focus on breathing techniques that relieve stress. Best of all, the exercises can be modified to suit anyone's body type or fitness level, making Pilates a wonderful exercise option for all ages.
"My older clients don't want to go to aerobics classes or lift heavy weights," Laura explains. "They want to stretch and strengthen their muscles, prevent osteoporosis and recover lost bone mass. Pilates helps accomplish that.
"My female clients love how Pilates exercises their stomachs and hips, and everyone appreciates that they can practice Pilates at home."
Man Behind the Movement
Joseph Pilates created the exercise that bears his name. While living in England, the German-born health enthusiast was placed in a camp under forced internment at the outbreak of World War I. During this period, he taught others in the camp about his fitness concepts.
Joseph developed a series of floor exercises that built strength without bulk. The men in the camp followed his lead and experienced improvements in overall health.
Joseph continued to tweak the exercises after being assigned to provide physical therapy for those with war-related injuries. He developed even more exercises using self-designed machines that relied on springs for resistance.
After the war, Joseph moved to New York City where he opened a studio to introduce his workout techniques and further research his theories. Long after his death in 1967, millions of people continue to depend on Pilates movements as their main source of fitness.
As the science of exercise evolved, individuals began teaching alterations to Joseph's original exercises. "There are several variations of the movements, including authentic and contemporary Pilates," Laura explains.
"I focus primarily on the movements truest to the original exercises. That's how many students begin, but talk with your doctor about which form of Pilates is best for you."
If you want to try Pilates, Laura suggests meeting with a certified instructor. "It's important to start with a private lesson to be sure you're doing the exercises correctly," she reports. "Instructional videotapes are great, but they are no replacement for an attentive instructor."
If a private session isn't an option for you, consider a small class. Search the Internet to locate a Pilates studio in your area, or contact your local YMCA, public school or library system and ask about the availability of classes.
"The machines used in Pilates are very beneficial but introductory classes usually focus on mat exercises," Laura notes. "Not only are these exercises at the heart of Pilates, but students can practice them at home.
"At first, try to practice Pilates at least 2 days a week," she suggests. "And even though Pilates will help turn fat into muscle, combine your routine with a healthy diet and a cardiovascular activity such as walking.
"Trust me," Laura says, "once Pilates loosens and strengthens your muscles, you'll want to get off the couch and start moving. No matter what your age or health, Pilates will make you feel more powerful than you've felt in ages."