Walk into almost any gym, health club or fitness center and you’ll find a myriad of different exercises classes on the schedule. From yoga to kickboxing to trendy new workouts like Zumba, each type of exercise claims to hold the key to better health, a toned physique and a slimmer waistline. So what sets Pilates apart? Along with the visible physical benefits of practicing Pilates–like a leaner, sleeker body and better posture–you’ll also reap mental and emotional benefits. Pilates is among the only exercise forms to safely and consistently deliver a full-body workout that also cultivates mindfulness, increased concentration and control.
Read on for the scoop on five ways Pilates can improve your life.
1. Core Strength. The band of muscles surrounding your stomach and lower back isn’t called the “core” for nothing. Virtually every movement you make with your arms, legs and back generates from this muscle group. A strong core could mean the difference between a healthy, active body and one riddled with joint pain, fatigue and strain. Traditional exercises like crunches, squats and sit-ups might target parts of the core–mostly the larger abdominal and gluteal muscles–but Pilates is unique in that most of the exercises teach your core muscles to work together in synthesis. Instead of focusing only on the limb that’s extended, like the leg in the Side Kick series or your arms in the Swim, you must also focus on engaging and stabilizing the other areas of the body such as the spine. Toning these muscles will give you a leaner overall appearance while protecting areas that are prone to strain, like the lower back.
2. Flexibility. A body that is flexible as well as strong is less prone to injury than a rigid body. Pilates incorporates both dynamic and active stretching. Dynamic stretching involves using movement to gently and safely stretch muscles to their full range of motion (but not beyond). For example, both the Single Straight Leg Stretch and the Single Leg Kick in Pilates incorporate a repeated controlled extension or flexion of the leg to its furthest stretch. Some Pilates instructors might incorporate static or passive stretching (which does not involve movement) into their classes as well.
3. Balance. Feeling a little wobbly? Pilates can help. A stronger core will naturally lead to improved balance and several Pilates exercises are designed to specifically test your balance and control. Practicing Pilates rolling exercises like the Seal and Corkscrew, the Roll-Over and the Teaser will help train your core muscles to more quickly adjust to changes in your center of gravity.
4. Alignment and posture. Your mother may no longer yell at you to “sit up straight” from across the dinner table, but if you still struggle with slouching, you’re not alone. People who work at desk jobs or spend a lot of time hunched over a computer screen are especially prone to developing poor posture habits. In a Pilates class, you’ll spend a lot of time focusing on lengthening your spinal column and dropping your shoulders. Along with relieving neck and shoulder tension, these exercises will minimize or eliminate habitual slouching by training your vertebrae to correctly align from head to tail bone. The stronger lower back muscles, abdominals and obliques you’ll develop from regular Pilates practice will also help you stand stronger and walk taller.
5. Mindfulness and concentration. Pilates is (literally) about mind over matter. By using your mind to control your muscles, you learn to channel mental energy in a productive, healthy way. Often, a focused mind and the correct mental imagery are the keys to accomplishing a difficult exercise. Most Pilates classes begin with breathing exercises designed to get you to focus on your inhalations and exhalations. This guided focus leads to healthier, more efficient breathing and can rejuvenate your awareness of the relationship between mind and body.