Devotees of Pilates Reformer and mat classes may be heading to studios across the country to achieve toned bodies, but they’re leaving with far more health benefits than they may even realize. Unlike an aerobic activity that you know is strengthening your heart with every noticeable beat, like running, the immediate health effects of Pilates can be a bit less obvious—though that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t loving you for them just the same.
Some think Pilates is only for the young and limber, but don’t let that deter you from trying it and enjoying of the health benefits it can bring. Many of the exercises you’ll do in a Pilates session are performed in reclining or sitting positions, and most are low impact and only partially weight bearing, making it a safe activity for most people. In fact, Pilates is so gentle that it is used in physical therapy facilities to rehabilitate injuries.
Pull up a mat and explore all of the ways Pilates can improve your overall wellbeing.
Pilates improves mindfulness. When you run, hike or swim, your mind may wander from that deadline at work to what you’ll cook for dinner. That’s OK, but part of the beauty of practicing Pilates is that you must concentrate for the duration of your session—on your breathing, relaxing and contracting the correct muscles, and listening to your instructor. You are present and aware of the here and now. This is a good skill to bring into other areas of your life, as well, because it can help you improve your focus, regulate your emotions and more.
Pilates reduces stress levels. Breathing properly and deeply through your diaphragm—a key component of Pilates—slows your heart rate and can help you feel calmer both in and out of your sessions. Studies have also found that people who regularly practice Pilates enjoy improved sleep and lower stress levels compared to those who don’t.
Pilates improves blood circulation. As you transition into and out of Pilates exercises, deeply inhaling through the nose and exhaling completely through the mouth, you also move a large volume of air from the lungs. This improves blood circulation to all working muscles, as well as your organs.
Pilates strengthens your core. When choosing a DVD or Pilates class, take note of the minute-by-minute instructions. With correct execution of individual exercises, each and every repetition will target and engage the transverse abdominis, the lowest and most powerful abdominal muscles (called “the powerhouse” by Pilates instructors) in the body. You may tone your biceps or outer thighs with various Pilates exercises, for instance, but all Pilates moves are initiated by your core. And a stronger core delivers an array of body benefits, from a reduction in back aches and pains to improved athletic performance.
Pilates improves posture. Pilates helps restore the natural curves of the spine to improve posture and prevent back pain, while increasing mobility through the back of the body to help you stand taller and with more stability. That’s because a person with a strong core has the powerful corset of muscles necessary to actively support the spine and protect it from harm.
Pilates helps with chronic pain. Pilates can also reduce back, neck and joint pain by strengthening muscle groups and correcting muscle imbalances. A study in The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that a group of back pain sufferers who did Pilates for four weeks reported increased range of motion and a decrease in pain compared to people who didn’t do Pilates. Researchers suspect that the benefits the Pilates group enjoyed were due—you guessed it—to the activation of their core muscles.
Pilates boosts energy levels. The gentle controlled movements you’ll do during Pilates wake up your muscles without overtaxing or wearing down your body. According to research done at the University of Georgia, people who suffered from fatigue increased their energy levels by 20 percent when they regularly participated in low-intensity exercise, such as Pilates. Few exercises can boast being both soothing and energizing, but Pilates can do just that.
Pilates improves your balance and agility. Pull your navel to your spine. Bring your pelvis into neutral. Draw your tailbone down toward your heels. Pilates sessions are full of cues about specific biomechanics, all of which can help you gain more control over and awareness of how your body moves, as well as increase muscular endurance. The emphasis on healthy alignment, in particular, can not only help you get the most out of your practice, but encourage better posture, safer movement during daily activities and more. In fact, researchers are currently investigating how Pilates can be used in patients living with multiple sclerosis, a disease that impairs balance and mobility.