January 3, 2017

Pilates: What it Can Do for Your Health

pilates health

“Pilates is not an exercise fad. It’s an underlying technology of movement that can translate into all different disciplines.” Teresa Willis


Like virtually any systematic program of relatively intensive exercise, Pilates can do a body good. Lots of good. In fact, clinical trials suggest that Pilates exercise programs can be used to successfully address chronic back pain, and results may be superior to those obtained from “minimal physical exercise intervention.” Other studies have concluded that Pilates is at least as effective as other exercise programs for back pain relief and improvement of functional capacity.

A Practitioner’s Perspective


Teresa Willis, of Louisville, Kentucky, is an instructor and dedicated fan. “Pilates works with the natural design of the body to create movement…that works with the body and optimal alignment,” Willis says.  She notes that Pilates puts its practitioners on a path towards, “successful movement, successful aging and successful rehab from injury.”


It’s not about aesthetics, says Willis. It’s about function. “We don’t pay attention to just the big muscle groups but get into intrinsic structural muscles and systems. Sometimes tiny movements or tiny adjustments in Pilates can make a huge difference in how the exercise is manifested throughout the body. This transforms the practitioner’s relationship with their own body.”


She notes that balance and proprioception (the sense of where one’s body is in space) are both improved by Pilates. “Core muscles are strengthened…and agility is improved. I’ve seen clients improve in a very short number of sessions. It works very quickly. Pilates is not an exercise fad. It’s an underlying technology of movement that can translate into all different disciplines. Once you know Pilates, things like yoga, tennis, rock climbing, and cycling all get intrinsically safer and more satisfying, because you’re working in optimal alignment and preventing injury stress and strain.”


In the Beginning


Pilates is a system of conditioning exercises developed by German-born Joseph Pilates, in New York beginning in the 1920s. Inspired by his own struggles with childhood health challenges, Pilates developed a unique system that combines elements of various ancient exercise/wellness systems, such as yoga, Greek and Roman gymnastics, karate, dance, boxing, and even Zen. As you might guess, given the inclusion of yoga and zen in this list of influences, Pilates features aspects of both mind and body conditioning.


As noted earlier, not all researchers have concluded that Pilates is superior to other forms of exercise when it comes to improvements in various ailments, such as lower back pain, functional disability, etc. But others have concluded that it is, in fact, better at delivering these kinds of benefits, especially when applied regularly and long-term.


Pilates for relief from lower back pain makes sense, because problems with lower back pain can often be traced to relative weakness in the abdominal and supporting muscles. Pilates focuses intently on “core strengthening,” meaning that it focuses on strengthening these all-important groups of deep, central muscles, which help support the lower back during lifting and twisting maneuvers. Strengthening movements are performed symmetrically.


Depression, Back Pain, and Quality of Life


Pilates has also been investigated for the treatment of depression among elderly women, with the result that after 16 weeks subjects who engaged in Pilates experienced measurable improvements in signs of depression and “ego-resiliency”. Some studies on elderly people have reported significant improvements in balance, but others have failed to document this effect.


Another recent study examined the effects of a 12-week Pilates program on postural alignment and body composition among middle-aged women. Compared to control subjects, who did not perform Pilates exercises regularly, subjects experienced significant improvements in posture and trunk alignment, which were accompanied by gains in muscle mass. As noted in the Journal of Physical Therapy Sciences, “…muscle mass was correlated with trunk postural alignment and…the proper amount of muscle is critical in maintaining trunk postural alignment.”


This improvement is especially important among middle-aged, post-menopausal women, because women of this age tend to lose significant muscle mass, gain excess fat, and lose bone mineral density. Together, these age-related factors may contribute to declines in strength, loss of mobility, and declines in the quality of life. Pilates is one way to counteract these deficits, by improving muscular strength, endurance, core stability and breathing. The authors of the study noted that Pilates excels at flexibility training, stimulates blood circulation, and yields improvements in body awareness as well as postural alignment.


Of course, Pilates is not only for women. Plenty of men have discovered the benefits of this system. However, its emphasis on conditioning, alignment and stabilization, over simple muscle mass development, appears to appeal most strongly to women.


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Lee HT, Oh HO, Han HS, Jin KY, Roh HL. Effect of mat pilates exercise on postural alignment and body composition of middle-aged women. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2016;28(6):1691-1695. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.1691.

Lin H-T, Hung W-C, Hung J-L, Wu P-S, Liaw L-J, Chang J-H. Effects of pilates on patients with chronic non-specific low back pain: a systematic review. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2016;28(10):2961-2969. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.2961.

Miyamoto GC, Costa LOP, Cabral CMN. Efficacy of the Pilates method for pain and disability in patients with chronic nonspecific low back pain: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy. 2013;17(6):517-532. doi:10.1590/S1413-35552012005000127.

Patti A, Bianco A, Paoli A, et al. Effects of Pilates Exercise Programs in People With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review. Barna. S, ed. Medicine. 2015;94(4):e383. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000000383.

Roh SY. Effect of a 16-week Pilates exercise program on the ego resiliency and depression in elderly women. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 2016;12(5):494-498. doi:10.12965/jer.1632704.352.