One of the hottest buzzwords in fitness circles for the past few years has been Pilates. Often confused with yoga, Pilates is a form of exercise designed to improve strength, flexibility, endurance and posture – and just about anyone can do it and see the benefits.
“A lot of people have back and neck problems from sitting at a desk,” says Tracy Barber, director of Inner Hero Pilates in Toronto. “We live in a forward-reaching world. We sit in front of our computer and reach forward for the keyboard. We sit in our car reaching for the steering wheel. We spend so much time seated, which is very stressful for our body. We’re not designed to do that.”
During World War I, Joseph Pilates, a German living in England, developed a series of exercises and equipment to help prisoners of war regain strength and mobility. When he emigrated to New York in the 1920s, he discovered those same techniques helped dancers prevent injury and improve strength while maintaining long, even muscle tone. That’s when the Pilates method was born.
Pilates is designed to fine-tune the mind-body connection, says Barber. The practice emphasizes proper correct spinal and pelvic alignment and complete concentration on smooth, flowing movement. The idea is that you become acutely aware of how your body feels, where it is in space and how to control its movement. The exercises are designed to elongate and strengthen the muscles.
It’s different from traditional forms of weight lifting because it provides resistance as the muscle is lengthening, not just as it is shortening, says Barber. “When people are weight lifting, when they return towards gravity, they let the weight drop,” she says. “But if you return it toward gravity with control, that builds the nice long, lean muscle mass that builds strength and improves bone density.”
There are two main types of Pilates: mat and reformer. In mat Pilates, you do the exercises on a mat on the floor, generally using nothing but your own body weight (although occasionally you may use free weights, exercise balls and/or weighted balls.) In reformer Pilates, you use a machine to help create resistance as the muscle is lengthening. Both can be appropriate for beginners.
Why should anyone do Pilates in the first place? Barber says there are health and fitness benefits for all, whether they are sedentary, athletes or someone in between. But you won’t just see improved performance and a leaner body, she adds. There’s also an added benefit: Pilates can really help you relax.
“In our daily life, we exercise our ‘flight or fight’ response all the time; when we’re in the car, in traffic, late for something, feeling pressured with deadlines,” Barber says. “Even when we go to the gym, what do we do? We push it, push it, exercising that fight or flight again! And the truth is, we need to be exercising that relaxation response a little more often. With Pilates, you are refining that calmness.”
Barber recommends either joining a beginner class or taking a private lesson to get started practicing Pilates. That’s because being in front of an instructor can help you ensure you’re doing the exercise right and getting the most benefit out of it.
“A beginner class is a great place to start,” she says. Even if you are an athlete or are very fit, a beginners’ class will help you learn the exercises without risking injury. Take your time and start slowly at the beginning. As you continue to practice, you will find yourself getting better at the exercises, Barber adds.
A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.