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Health benefits of Pilates


What is Pilates?

Pilates is a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. The movements are low impact and are done with control and concentration.


Pilates helps with flexibility and good posture. It's about building a strong core, helped by controlled breathing.


Where does Pilates come from?

Pilates was developed by German born Joseph Pilates. He came up with the series of exercises to help strengthen and rehabilitate his own body as he'd had rheumatic fever, asthma and rickets as a child. He emigrated to the US in the 1920s and set up a studio in New York. Dancers and boxers who wanted to get stronger and avoid injury exercised there. He called his method of exercise Contrology. After he died in the 1960s his work became known as Pilates.


Pilates improves core strength

The main focus of Pilates is core strength. Joseph Pilates called the core the 'powerhouse'. Experts in Pilates like to think of the body as a tree. The core is the trunk and without a strong trunk and roots the tree would fall over. So Pilates concentrates on building a strong core or trunk. Core strength involves the abdominal, back and pelvic muscles. When you do Pilates you'll also use your bottom and thigh muscles to help you work and control your core.


Pilates improves balance

As Pilates strengthens your core muscles and realigns the spine it can help improve your balance and coordination. It may be good for older people as balance becomes more of an issue as you age. Better balance means fewer falls.


Pilates can improve your posture


Pilates makes you more aware of the way you hold your body and your posture even after class is over. If you perhaps slouch over a computer or tend to cradle a phone between your neck and shoulder Pilates makes you more tuned in to that and more likely to change your posture. You'll be able to identify the aches and pains you get from everyday bad habits and correct them. Also a strengthened and stabilised core will help you stand taller.


Pilates can make you stronger and more flexible


Pilates can help with your flexibility and make your muscles stronger. The frequent stretching of muscles in Pilates makes them longer and leaner. As no weights are used, the muscles aren't big and bulky and inflexible.

Runners, boxers, football players and other athletes often do Pilates to help them become more flexible and stronger, and less prone to injury.


What are the main principles of Pilates?

The Pilates approach to exercise focuses on centring, concentration, precision, breath and flow. In Pilates you keep your core muscles engaged close to the spine. Exercises are done at the same time as rhythmic breathing to help focus on the moves. You are encouraged to really concentrate on the move you are doing. Controlling your body is easier if you think carefully about the exercise as you do it.


Is Pilates difficult?

Pilates is fine for a beginner if you start out with the basic exercises. A private lesson would ideally be best to start off with. The teacher can make sure you are doing the moves correctly and give you advice on technique. Once you master the basic moves you'll be able to do the move advanced options. Most people will start off in a group with the instructor giving a range of options for a particular exercise depending on ability.


Do you need any special equipment?

Usually Pilates is floor based so you just need a mat which many gyms provide. You can also perform Pilates using special equipment or apparatus. Some equipment is portable, for example the magic circle, fitness band or exercise ball. Some Pilates studios use these or they may be featured in DVDs.

Pilates apparatus or larger pieces of equipment is used in big gyms or Pilates studios. These include things like the Reformer, Chair, Ladder Barrel and Cadillac. They have various pulleys, handles and straps, and provide support or resistance. If you have an injury or physical issue Pilates apparatus may be used to help support you and allow you to do the moves.


Can Pilates help you lose weight?

Pilates is not an aerobic or cardio exercise - so it doesn't burn fat. A Pilates workout will make you more flexible and make your muscles stronger so it's good at helping you maintain a healthy weight. It is low impact so your muscles will be working with the weight of your body rather than actual weights.


It's a good idea to do aerobic exercise as well as Pilates if you want to lose weight.


What's the difference between yoga and Pilates?

Yoga has been around for 5,000 years and came from India. Pilates is a much more recent 20th century method of exercise.


Both types of exercise focus on strength and flexibility, and see a connection between the mind and the body. Yoga, depending on how it's taught often brings in the spiritual element, with meditation and deeper breathing work. Pilates concentrates mainly on strengthening the core and spine. Yoga works more of the body's muscles. Yoga involves holding static poses whereas Pilates is more flowing.


Does Pilates help with back pain?

Back pain can be caused by a number of different conditions. The cause should be diagnosed by a GP or specialist before taking part in exercise classes.


In general though Pilates aims to strengthen the core and strengthen the muscles which support the spine. There is some evidence it may help with some back conditions related to muscular tension. A 2006 study in the Journal of Orthopedic Sports Physical Therapy found that people with chronic non-specific lower back pain experienced less pain after a 4 week Pilates exercise programme.

If you have back pain and want to try Pilates, it would be better having a one-to-one session first before joining a class. Clinical Pilates under the guidance of a physiotherapist would be the best option. You would get individual attention tailored to your specific issues. Your teacher would also make sure you were doing the exercises correctly.

Pilates should be challenging, but shouldn't twinge or hurt. If you do the exercises with the wrong technique you could make your back condition worse.

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