“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. In order to achieve happiness it is important to gain mastery of your body.” – Joseph Pilates
Pilates is a holistic approach to exercise that is designed to strengthen, elongate, and restore the body to its natural balance. It brings physical, mental and “spiritual” benefits to its practitioners and is therefore an excellent workout for all people, regardless of age and ability. The regular practice of Pilates can help to stabilize the spine by increasing the strength of the core muscles, it can increase flexibility, improve balance and improve posture and develop lean muscle tone.
I first fell in love with Pilates on the Reformer, an amazing apparatus that resembles a medieval torture device – just kidding, it’s actually an amazing machine, but it can be kind of daunting when you encounter one for the first time. One of the many benefits of the Reformer is that it can both make traditional exercises easier and/or more difficult, depending on the tension levels and settings you choose. Studio Reformers are expensive pieces of equipment (like $7500+ expensive); and while there are a variety of home options on the market most of these are not nearly as sturdy or as versatile as a commercial Reformer. Furthermore, and I fully admit to being a bit biased since I am a Pilates instructor, I strongly recommend that if you are interested in the Reformer you take at least a few classes with a trained instructor so that you can learn the ins and outs of the machine.
However, as great as the Reformer is, all you need to practice Pilates is a mat and some comfortable clothes. And please don’t think a mat workout will be boring or easy. In fact, sometimes mat work is extremely challenging. And, as you advance through your practice of Pilates you can add in props – small balls, Bosu balls, the Pilates ring, light weights, exercise bands, and of course you can also experiment with different types of equipment, not only the Reformer, but also the Tower, the barrel, the chair and the Cadillac – just to name a few.
But enough about the equipment – what is is that makes Pilates so great? Well, I’ll tell you:
- Strengthens the Core & More. In Pilates all exercises come from the core. This means that even if you are working your arms or your legs (which you will), your core powers every move in your practice. This helps to build strong abdominals and back muscles (and just about all of us are after flatter abs), that not only help you perform well in Pilates but also in functional movements throughout your day. In addition, Pilates will help to sculpt longer, leaner muscles and increase muscle definition in your arms and legs.
- Alleviates Lower Back Pain. Because Pilates is a core-based exercise that centers around strengthening the deep abdominal muscles, over time a stronger core will give the back support, like an internal brace, which helps to protect the lower spine. In fact, many doctors and physical therapists recommend Pilates as a from of rehabilitation.
- Improves posture. Pilates was initially developed as a rehabilitative tool by Joseph Pilates, a German gymnast, who believed that poor posture goes hand-in-hand with poor health. He dedicated his life to teaching his exercising techniques, focusing on breath and spinal alignment. Today, Pilates is praised by everyone from athletes to physical therapists to office workers who spend much of their day hunched over a computer keyboard to new moms for its ability to develop strength and correct posture in the key areas of the hips/lower back, upper back and neck – basically counteracting the effects of daily slouching. Pilates exercises focus on releasing the typically overactive areas of the shoulders, chest, thoracic spine (upper back) and hip flexor muscles, while at the same time activating and strengthening the gluteals, abdominals and shoulder stabilizers. The regular practice of Pilates can significantly improve dynamic stability – your ability to hold yourself in proper alignment for an extended period of time, maintaining upright posture and stability.
- Energizes the Body. Pilates is a dynamic full body workout that emphasizes proper breathing. This type of breath control was designed to cleanse the bloodstream through oxygenation, by bringing fresh blood to all of the cells. By learning how to take deep, cleansing breaths you will increase your lung capacity and more fully expel stale air and gases. This will increase oxygen levels throughout your body and leave you feeling energized.
- Relieves Tension. In addition, Pilates breathing not only increases your physical health, it also reduces your blood pressure and triggers a relaxation response in the brain. The smooth, steady movements quiet your mind and soothe your nervous system. As you lengthen and strengthen your muscles, you will improve your circulation and dissolve tension away. Less stress equals a happy body, mind, and spirit.
- Improves Balance. Many people struggle with balance as they age. This is because balance suffers as muscles weaken and deteriorate. By focusing on core strength, Pilates helps to strengthen deep muscles which aid in stabilization as you move throughout your day. And better balance leads to a reduced risk of falls and injuries.
- Increases Flexibility. Joseph Pilates said, “True flexibility can be achieved only when all the muscles are uniformly developed.” Therefore, it follows that Pilates exercises work on developing the body as an integrated unit. Pilates is about movement or flow, and in Pilates we focus on maintaining proper posture, alignment and control while moving smoothly and gracefully from one position to the next. The slow, deliberate progression of Pilates exercises strengthens and lengthens all your muscles resulting in increased flexibility over time.
- Efficient and Effective. Pilates is a full body workout that can be completed in 30-90 minutes. The Reformer and other apparatus allow for a cardio component as well. Pilates is an effective exercise regardless of age or ability is is easily tailored to meet individual needs. In addition, when done properly and regularly, results are usually observed with 4-6 weeks, which motivates you to continue your practice.
I could go on and on, but if you’ve stayed with me this far you can see that Pilates is a comprehensive workout that reaps both physical and mental benefits, increases strength and flexibility and heightens mental awareness. It is a great way to stay young in body, mind and spirit. I hope you give it a try.