Loosen up “? the Power in Pilates

“Reach your head for the ceiling. Feel as though you could scrape the ceiling with the top of your head.”

I’m on my stomach bending up surrounded by very flexible people, most of whom are years older than me and should stereotypically be creaking and groaning, but are instead limber and stretching like swans. The swan is in fact what we are doing here in my Pilates mat class. The idea is to bend and strengthen the parts of your spine that tend to get forgotten.

I have been doing Pilates on and off for three years. I started doing Pilates out of pure frustration. One day, I decided to train for a half-marathon and by race day I was nursing a painful knee and a bruised ego. No race for me. I’d lifted weights and tried numerous other types of exercise before I went to my first Pilates class.

Pilates seems like a trend, rather than a proven effective exercise. We have officially moved away from the no-pain, no-gain mantra. Exercise trends of today seem just as focused on mental well-being and relaxation, as they do on burning calories. Yoga, Tai chi and Pilates are to today, what the aerobics class was to the 1980s. As such, Pilates may eventually find its place with the Jane Fonda videotapes. Nevertheless, I figured, I’d already tried a yoga class and Pilates couldn’t be much different.

Yoga hadn’t held my interest. The low-lit room and slow breathing was very relaxing, but asking me to stand and hold certain positions gave me too much time to think. Half way through a downward dog, I was making lists of chores in my head and wondering if the class would ever end.

However, while Pilates and yoga are similar at first glance, they are in practice quite different. The first thing I noticed was that in Pilates there wasn’t as much time for your mind to wander. You aim to coincide your breathing with fluid movements. Pilates is by definition “a system of movement” that works “by toning muscles as well as balancing muscular force at the joint level. It stimulates circulation through facilitating muscular flexibility, joint range of motion and proper musculoskeletal alignment” (Royer, 2002). In other words, it’s movements that help you feel strong and limber.

Although Pilates has been around since the early 1900s (when it was first invented by Joseph Pilates in Germany) (The Pilates Center, 2005) there seems to be relatively little research on its benefits. Those who practice Pilates have cited that the exercises gave them long, lean bodies to the point that they felt taller. Other praises, like the ones stated here by The Pilates Center in Boulder Colorado claim Pilates “promotes new neuromuscular patterns, heightened body awareness, and more precise coordination” (The Pilates Center, 2005).

This summer, a study stated that Pilates was not necessarily worthy of all the praises being sung about it. Researchers argued that Pilates couldn’t make you longer or taller. Michele Olsen, the leading researcher of the study states, “Muscles cannot grow longer, but you can improve your flexibility from the exercises…You can increase your lean tissue, but what you’re doing is actually putting on muscle. So you are actually increasing muscle, which is a good thing, but not narrowing the muscles” (American College of Sports Medicine ACSM, 2005). The study summarized that Pilates is effective at increasing flexibility and muscular endurance when practiced at the intermediate and advanced levels. Researchers weren’t convinced Pilates could help reduce body mass nor increase cardiovascular fitness (Ibid.).

Joseph Pilates reasoned that, “physical fitness can neither be achieved by wishful thinking nor outright purchase” (Appleby, 2005). Agreeing with his words, I find myself in a Pilates class, stretching and moving carefully, training myself to pay attention and my muscles and joints to be strong. I’m not necessarily monogamous. When it doesn’t work for me anymore, or I become convinced that there is something better, I’ll move on. For now, I look to my left and see a lady in her 60s “rolling like a ball” onto her back, and then moving fluidly into a leg stretch working her abdominals. I feel challenged and hopeful that when I’m her age, I’ll be able to do things like that too. The only research I need for now is a quick study of my left knee as I run up the stairs in my house. No pain, no gain? I don’t think so.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) (2005, March 30). News release: Pilates research offers new information on popular technique, exercise beneficial for flexibility, muscular fitness. Retrieved November 1, 2005, from http://www.acsm.org/publications/newsreleases2005/Summit_pilates.htm.
Appleby, M. (2005). The basics of pilates: Focusing on core strength. Retrieved November 1, 2005, from http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/strengthtraining/a/pilates_core.htm
The Pilates Center (2005). The Pilates method. Retrieved October 28, 2005, from http://www.thepilatescenter.com/method.htm.
Royer, D. (2002, April 29). SUNY [State University of New York] Upstate Medical University press release: University Health Care Manlius offers Pilates exercise program for injury prevention and rehabilitation. Retrieved November 1, 2005, from http://upstate.edu/publicaffairs/news.php?id=345.htm