After Shari Berkowitz was injured during a live dance performance onstage, doctors told the actress that one wrong move could leave her paralysed for life. She had suffered three herniated discs in her neck, with one bulging into her spinal column. Months of physical therapy got her out of the danger zone, and then she discovered Pilates.
Though excellent doctors and physical therapists got her through the initial healing, she said Pilates gave her “strength and confidence in my ability to move — the confidence that I could move again,” she said. The workout led to her full recovery and inspired her to become a Pilates instructor and studio owner herself. “Pilates was so transformative for me, when I see a client start to develop that same physical and emotional strength,” she said, “it’s extremely satisfying.”
Berkowitz is not the only Pilates devotee to speak about the workout’s transformative powers. Many studios tout a quote attributed to its founder, German boxer and strongman Joseph Pilates, that declares: “In 10 sessions, you feel better, 20 sessions you look better, 30 sessions you have a completely new body.”
While no workout can offer us a new body, devotees say the low-weight resistance training can help our current bodies in important ways, strengthening the core muscles around the spine. Pilates first gained widespread attention in the late 1990s, as celebrities like Madonna and Uma Thurman touted its benefits, and aerobics enthusiasts sought a lower impact option.
But a few years ago, the workout appeared to be on the decline. Doomsayers predicted a “Pilatespocalypse”, as newer and sweatier fitness trends, like spinning and boot camps, exploded.
But thanks in part to the pandemic, many people’s exercise priorities have shifted from intense, calorie-burning workouts to activities that also foster a mind-body connection, said Cedric Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise.
Pilates is once again booming. So, is it worth trying to incorporate Pilates into your fitness routine?
And what flavour is right for you? If you’re intrigued by the workout, here’s what you need to know.
What is Pilates?
Pilates workout is often performed on a mat or in a chair and includes many strength and flexibility exercises found in other forms of resistance training.
There are a few elements that make Pilates unique. First, the method encourages participants to focus on breathing and cultivate a mind-body connection, paying particular attention to how all movement stems from the core. Exercises are repeated in sets that strategically work the muscles without exhausting them.
Many Pilates workouts also incorporate special equipment, including spring-based resistance machines designed to support the spine and target specific muscle groups. The most popular machine, called the “reformer”, looks like a small bed frame with a sliding platform hooked up to a system of springs, ropes and pulleys.
Scientific research does support an array of impressive health benefits for Pilates. Studies suggest that it may help to improve muscle endurance and flexibility, reduce chronic pain and lessen anxiety and depression.
Who can benefit from Pilates?
The short answer is: everyone. Really.
Pilates can be tailored to a spectrum of fitness goals, ages and abilities — professional dancers, athletes, pregnant women, octogenarians looking to improve their balance.
Physicians and physical therapists often recommend Pilates as a path to rehabilitation for people recovering from injury. “It can serve as a bridge back to more normal activity,” said Bryant. It can also help reduce one’s odds of becoming injured, he said, because of its ability to improve core stability, balance, flexibility and posture. “We know that when those are inadequate, you increase your risk for a variety of musculoskeletal and joint injuries.”
Pilates can also benefit women who are pregnant or postpartum by safely strengthening the core and conditioning the pelvis.
What can’t Pilates do?
Traditional Pilates is not a cardiovascular workout. It isn’t equivalent to lifting heavy weights either.
So how often should you do it?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises adults to devote 150 minutes to moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two days to strength training weekly. Pilates would fall into the latter. But while you will see benefits from doing Pilates once or twice weekly, exercise experts agree that the ideal is three times a week.
What type of Pilates is best for you?
Not all workouts that call themselves “Pilates” are created equal. Experienced Pilates instructors generally recommend starting with oneon-one or small group training sessions, so you can learn the basics. “The ideal situation is to be in the studio,” said Robinson. “You have all the apparatus to help you and an instructor to guide you.”