Find out all you need to know about pilates, including the health benefits of pilates, pilates and back pain, and choosing a pilates class.
What is pilates?
There's more to pilates than developing "strong abs" or "core strength". Pilates is an exercise system that focuses on stretching and strengthening the whole body to improve balance, muscle-strength, flexibility and posture. It was created by German-born Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s and incorporates elements of yoga, martial arts and Western forms of exercise.
Initially adopted by professional dancers in the US as an effective form of recovery after injury, pilates has steadily grown in popularity around the world, and includes celebrity fans such as Madonna and Jennifer Aniston.
What are the health benefits of pilates?
There are many reports on the health benefits of pilates. However, few of these have been subjected to rigorous scientific examination and there's a need for more research in this area.
Anne-Marie Zulkahari has been teaching pilates for more than 30 years and is one of the founders of the Pilates Foundation teacher training organisation. She says pilates can help improve posture, muscle tone and flexibility, core strength and joint mobility, as well as relieve stress and tension.
Can pilates help reduce back pain?
There's some evidence that pilates can provide pain relief to people with non-specific low back pain. For the exercises to be effective, they need to be tailored to the individual and taught by a qualified teacher.
Can pilates help me lose weight?
Pilates isn’t an effective activity for losing weight. However, Anne-Marie says pilates exercise can “support weight loss and give a more streamlined appearance”. If you want to lose weight you should combine pilates with a healthy diet and some aerobic activities, such as swimming, walking and cycling.
Am I too old for pilates?
No. Pilates is suitable for people of all ages. Anne-Marie, who teaches in north west London, says she has clients aged in their 80s. “It’s never too late to start,” she says. “With pilates, you can devise a programme of exercises tailored to the individual. With older adults, I tend to work on balance, posture, co-ordination and breathing. I offer more gentle exercises to work on their weaknesses and improve their mobility.”
Do I have to be fit to do pilates?
No. Pilates is suitable for people of all levels of fitness. Practitioners say it's a more gentle way of raising your activity levels, especially if you have poor mobility, aches and pains or an injury.
Anne-Marie says many of her clients do pilates because they're not fit. She says pilates can be adapted to raise the fitness levels of someone less active, and it can challenge someone very fit. Before starting any exercise programme it’s advisable to seek advice from your GP or a health professional if you have any health concerns, such as a health condition or an injury.
Can I injure myself doing pilates?
Pilates is a gentle, low-impact form of exercise. Injuries are uncommon. However, it's important that you find a qualified teacher and a class suitable to your level to ensure that the routines aren't too challenging.
If you don't exercise already or you're recovering from injury, it's advisable to check with your GP, a health professional and the pilates teacher before starting a class.
What’s the difference between pilates and yoga?
Both pilates and yoga focus on developing strength, balance, flexibility, posture and good breathing technique. With its emphasis on the unity between the mind and body, yoga has a more spiritual side that pilates does not. The main components of yoga are postures (a series of movements designed to increase the strength and flexibility of the whole body) and breathing.
Pilates also uses breathing, but its exercises focus much more on precise movements to target specific parts of the body. The best pilates classes are in small groups where the teacher can develop programmes to suit each person’s strengths and weaknesses.
What’s the difference between pilates with apparatus and pilates on mats?
Joseph Pilates designed his exercises to be performed on specialised apparatus, and later developed mat exercises to allow his students to practise at home.
With pilates on mats, exercises are mostly performed on the mat, sometimes using small pieces of equipment such as stretch bands and gym balls.
For certain medical conditions, apparatus-based pilates may be more suitable, as the equipment and smaller class size means an exercise programme can be tailored to your individual needs.
Classes using apparatus offer a higher level of individual attention but they're usually more expensive. The apparatus is used to provide resistance to challenge your body and support your body, depending on your needs.
What should I look out for when choosing a class or teacher?
There's a nationally recognised level 3 qualification for mat-based pilates teaching, but no qualification for teaching pilates using apparatus.
There are many ways to get into pilates teaching. Not all teachers necessarily have a nationally recognised qualification but may be accredited by a pilates training body, such as the Pilates Foundation or Body Control Pilates.
Most health and fitness providers, such as leisure centres and health clubs, require their instructors to be on the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs), a UK regulatory body set up to ensure that instructors meet the health and fitness industry’s national occupational standards. You can check the credentials of any REP-registered instructor on the REPs member search page. Again, not all pilates teachers are registered with REPs.
It's important to choose a teacher who suits your physical needs, whether it’s a health condition, fitness level or budget. Other things to consider are the teacher’s length of training and teaching experience. Anne-Marie says you should choose a teacher you connect with. “That’s the best way to ensure you’re going to enjoy the class,” she says.