By Dr. Mercola
Exercise is one of the important pillars of good health. It has been proven to be as effective (or more) than many drug treatments for common health concerns such as heart disease, depression and diabetes, to name just a few.
It’s important to incorporate a variety of different workouts to exert your muscles and gain the most from your time spent. This is only one of the reasons I recommend you incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT), strength training, flexibility training and core exercises into your workouts each week.
Pilates is a form of exercise that will build a strong core, improve your flexibility and has some strength training benefits as well. As I have stressed before, it is important to listen to your body as you engage in exercise, improve your sleep habits and change your dietary habits.
How you feel is a great indicator of how well these new habits are changing your health.
History of Pilates
Pilates is a form of exercise developed by Joseph Pilates with the expressed mission of giving people a means of achieving a uniformly developed body and union of mind, body and spirit.1 Pilates was German born and immigrated to Britain before coming to America.
He was likely the first influential person to integrate ideas about health from Western and Eastern ideologies.2 He opened his first studio in New York, which fast became popular with dancers who found his particular brand of exercise helped them recover from injuries and prevent recurrence.
The approach to fitness is founded on six principles Pilates developed that ultimately define the exercise and process a student undergoes.
Incorporating these six principles, Pilates believed would “give you suppleness, natural grace and skill.”3 The principles guide the teacher, student and those who develop new movements.
The exercises are often completed in a specific order, usually appearing simple but requiring a great deal of precision and control to successfully complete.4 Although demanding, you’ll not work up a sweat. The exercises target your abdominals, glutes, legs and back muscles, all needed for a strong core.
Flexibility, joint mobility and increasing strength using body weight are the principle muscle improvements you’ll notice. Since it is not competitive, you may tailor the workout to your individual needs, including arthritis and back pain.5
It’s important to discuss adding Pilates to your routine with your physician as adjustments must be made in certain medical conditions, such as pregnancy, if you suffer diabetic retinopathy, or if you have a knee or back injury to name a few.
Keep these six principles in mind as you move through your Pilates exercises to get the most out of them.6,7,8
Concentration and the mind-body connection is the very core of Pilates and the improvements you’ll experience. The focus is on awareness of your muscles, body position and moving parts.
It is not enough to simply go through the motions as mindfulness helps the body to relax, and your mind to connect to your body.
Precise control during fluid motion is what sets Pilates apart from other exercises and the reason many dancers appreciate the benefits of the workout.
Pilates believed that to become fit you must train your mind to control your body. Proper control and correct form allows for better exercise and improved benefits.
The position of your body in relationship to other parts of your body is vital to the success and safety of practicing Pilates.
Precision may prevent injury and increases muscle memory of the exercise, enabling you to focus on creating balance. Executing one exercise deliberately is more important than increasing repetitions using sloppy form.
Deep, controlled, diaphragmatic breathing improves circulation and is critical to performing Pilates correctly. Pilates believed that proper and controlled breathing would help you control your movements and improve oxygenation to your tissues.
Fluid movements assist transition between exercises and is integral to the practice of Pilates. Through the development of grace and fluidity, Pilates believed you acquired strength and stamina, improving muscle strength, balance and better neuromuscular connections.
In Pilates, the center of your body (abdomen, low back, hips and buttocks) are the powerhouse of your strength and all energy is initiated from this powerhouse. Pilates also believed that focusing on the center of your body helped calm your mind and spirit.
Body Awareness and Posture Improves Health
In this short video Kathy Smith gives you three strong reasons to incorporate Pilates into your workout routine. Although it appears deceptively easy to do by accomplished students, research suggests the tiny movements in Pilates improve both your balance and your core strength.9
Participants in a study of 30 older, ambulatory men and women took five weeks of Pilates classes. Researchers found they not only enjoyed immediate benefits, but balance improvements were maintained one year later.
Although you may think improvements in body awareness and posture are trivial in overall health considerations, you would be incorrect. Researchers have demonstrated a number of benefits to individuals from young to elderly when balance and posture are improved.
Better posture and control may reduce lower back pain,10 a significant risk factor for opioid addiction.11,12 Poor posture is associated with neck-related and tension headaches, which may go on to trigger migraine headaches.13 Poor posture will also increase your risk of suffering from lower and upper back pain.14 These chronic pain conditions not only are associated with pain medication addiction, but also reduce your quality of life.15,16
Poor posture increases the workload on muscles not designed to hold your body, increasing the amount of soreness and fatigue you experience throughout the day. Upright posture improves lung capacity and offers better oxygen exchange,17 which in turn affects your cognitive performance and potential risk for depression.18,19,20
Core Symmetrical Strength Drives Posture and Confidence
At the core of good posture are strong abdominal and upper and lower back muscles. These are the target areas of a Pilates program. Asymmetries in the abdominal wall may offset your spinal alignment and lead to back pain. Researchers have found that a Pilates program reduces these asymmetries and is an effective method of reinforcing abdominal muscles and eliminates pre-existing asymmetry.21
Your posture also influences your energy level22 and your mood,23 both of which have an influence on your work performance. The term “embodied cognition” is used to describe the relationship between your mind and body that runs in both directions. This means you may slouch since you’re feeling low, and you may feel low when you slouch. Better posture means a better mood.
Pilates has been associated with improved sense of well-being,24 which is opposed to feelings of sadness or depression. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral change that will help you build resilience to stress and be more confident. Research has linked upright posture with enthusiasm, high self-esteem and strength, and a slumped posture with fear, hostility and nervousness.25
Your body posture affects your confidence level and your ability to self-evaluate.26 Given the opportunity to evaluate themselves during a study, those who were in an upright posture were more confident in their choices.
Mental Advantages of Pilates Follow You Into the Workplace
Research from Harvard University finds that those assuming a “power posture,” or one in which your shoulders are back and your spine is straight, were more likely to be hired for a job, experienced a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent reduction in cortisol levels.27
Good posture presents a good first impression and improves your work performance.28 Leadership experts advise management teams and new prospects to stand tall and strike a power pose to make a better impression at work or during an interview.29 These are movements that require a strong core to maintain. Whether in an athletic situation30 or in the workplace,31 confidence enables you to learn faster, take risk and do what it takes to accomplish a goal.32
Practice Pilates in Just 15 Minutes
Pilates may be practiced on a mat, without equipment or a reformer. This is a piece of equipment that helps to nudge your body into correct alignment, using straps and a moving base. The piece was invented by Pilates so the student could perform a variety of exercises in different positions. However, if your aim is to get started at home, or do 15 minutes of Pilates at lunch to help energize your afternoon, then using a reformer is unnecessary.
Here are several beginner Pilates moves that will help to strengthen your core and introduce you to a practice designed to improve your posture, core strength and flexibility. Remember, these moves are meant to be done slowly and deliberately, incorporating the six principles of Pilates discussed above.33
✓ Toe Tap
Lie on the floor, face up with your back in neutral position. There should be a small gap between your lower back and the floor. Bend your knees with your feet flat and heels in line with your sitting bones. Raise both legs until your hips are at 90 degrees, much like sitting in a chair.
Breathe deeply. On exhale, alternate tapping one toe to the mat and then the other, keeping your toes pointed and going as low as possible while maintaining a neutral spine. On inhale, bring the leg back up and repeat with the opposite leg. Do 10 repetitions with each leg. Remember to breathe deeply and focus on your muscle movements and body alignment.
✓ Press Then Point
Also called “coordination,” start by lying on the floor, face up with your arms by your side and your knees bent, feet flat to the floor. Raise your legs so your knees are bent and hips are at 90 degrees, like sitting in a chair. This is the position from which you’ll be working.
Bend your elbows to 90 degrees, palms facing your feet. Breathe deeply. While exhaling, curl your head, neck and shoulders up from the lower ribs while simultaneously stretching your arms to your side on the floor and straightening your knees.
As you inhale, open your legs slightly wider than your hips and draw them back closed again, keeping your hands to the floor. Now exhale and bring your legs to the starting position. As you inhale the second time, release your head, neck and shoulders to the floor and bend your elbows to 90 degrees.
Repeat eight times, slowly and methodically, paying close attention to your form and breathing. It’s better to start doing one or two correctly than to try to complete eight with bad form.
✓ Knee Lift
Start on your hands and knees with your toes tucked under to the floor. Open your shoulder blades wide across your back and elongate your spine. As you exhale, tighten your abdominal muscles to your spine and press through your toes, floating your knees off the floor a few inches.
Keep your spine neutral as you lift. Hold this position as you breathe deeply twice. Lower your knees back to the mat. Repeat five times.
✓ Enhanced Bridge
This movement is similar to doing a bridge. Start on the floor, face up with your knees bent and feet flat to the floor and hip width apart. Press into your feet and lift your hips while maintaining a neutral spine.
Breathe deeply through the movements. Extend your right leg up and then lower it to the floor, all the while keeping your hips lifted and neutral. Repeat with the opposite leg. Do eight repetitions with each leg.
Lie on the floor, on your left side with your knees bent and stacked over each other. While keeping your feet together, lift the top leg out and knee up as high as you can, with your pelvis stable. Lower it back, like a clamshell.
Remember to focus on the position of your pelvis and legs while engaging your abdominals to maintain a neutral position. Repeat 15 times on one side and then repeat 15 times on the other.
✓ Pilates Push Up
Standing straight with your hands to your side and feet shoulder width apart, lower your chin to your chest and roll down slowly toward the floor. Bend your knees and bring your hands to the floor. Walk out slowly to the plank position, maintaining awareness of your body position.
Keep your core tight and buttocks tucked. Do a short pushup (not all the way to the floor). Push back into the plank position and raise your buttocks up, begin to walk your hands back until you are hanging over your legs. Tighten your abs and roll slowly back to the standing position. Repeat eight times.