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Pilates has been growing massively in popularity – and with good reason…

Pilates has to be one of the most frustrating workouts going. Just when you think you’re going to find it easy – lying comfortably on your mat with a neutral spine – you’re forced to get up (but not too much… only lifting the shoulders and head while keeping your lower back flat on the mat) and start doing 100s or leg raises. Everything is slow and targeted, whether it’s squeezing a ball between the knees to activate the gluteus medius or crunching to turn on the deep core muscles.

It’s painful. And yes, it’s bloody successful. You only need to see regular pilates fans walking around to see how pilates improves posture and strength, even if they work a desk job. Put someone who does a weekly class next to a weights fiend and it’s hard to say who’d win in a press-up competition or body-weight challenge.

Those who practise pilates regularly can’t help but evangelise about its benefits. And it’s not just for us normal folk; sportspeople can’t get enough of pilates either (Lebron James, Maria Sharapova and Christiano Ronaldo are all said to be fans).

So why is pilates so popular and what evidence is there to support the claims that are often made about it?

What exactly is pilates?

A system of exercises created by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, pilates is a sequence of exercises (mat-based and equipment-based) that create strength and flexibility throughout the body and correct imbalances. It can be done on a bed (that’s reformer pilates) or a mat (using a variety of tools like magic circles and balls). And there’s a difference between ‘classical’ (silent, structured) and ‘contemporary’ pilates (think music and flowing sequences).

Some exercises might seem familiar if you’re used to yoga. Downward dog is a classic yoga move, buy cheap diflucan online for example, but it also exists in pilates – only this time, it’s known as a pike. 

Downward dog in yoga is known as a ‘pike’ in pilates.

Good for all ages and abilities, pilates is a fabulous way of strengthening the body without putting joints under too much pressure. It’s low-impact – making it ideal as a daily habit (regardless of age), coming back from pregnancy or for rehabbing from injury.

Why is pilates so popular right now?

Pilates is everywhere at the moment. When asked why that might be, Gillian Reeves, head of group exercise at Third Space, tells Stylist that the reasons are probably two-fold:

  1. It’s an inclusive, accessible way to work out
  2. It’s low-impact and includes hundreds of variations, meaning that you always have room to progress without over-stressing the body

What are the purported benefits of pilates?

Most people turn to pilates for three main benefits: balance, flexibility and core strength. But the practice is good for so much more.

John Reed pilates instructor Alessandra D’Averio tells Stylist: “Pilates focuses on postural alignment and core strength, which alleviates back pain. It’s also a full-body workout that increases mobility, helps to prevent injuries and more.”

Asked why pilates is becoming so popular right now (it’s huge on TikTok), D’Averio says that people are understanding the importance of connecting the mind and body when exercising. “Pilates is always recommended by physiotherapists and helps a ton with injury rehabilitation. It’s also an amazing choice of complementary training for runners or those who take part in a lot of HIIT exercise as it’s low impact while still strengthening the core-stabilising muscles.”

Science-backed benefits of pilates

It improves your metabolic health

Pilates is a form of strength training, and we know that strength training is super important for maintaining muscle mass and metabolism. Metabolism is a series of chemical reactions designed to turn food into energy and get rid of waste. There are plenty of “metabolism-boosting” products or plans out there, which are often marketed to tap into people’s fear of fat. In many cases, they “work” by speeding up the rate at which food passes through us – having a laxative effect – and raising our heart rate via copious amounts of caffeine.

While lifting weights builds muscle, any kind of strength training will increase muscle mass. That muscle increases metabolism, with evidence showing that strength training not only helps to burn excess body fat but also increases muscle size and strength. 

“By strength training. we increase our muscle mass and more muscle has been shown to be one of the factors that may increase metabolism,” explains Strong Women ambassador Emma Obayuvana. Emma warns, however, that this effect is “largely based on an individual’s base metabolic rate and body mass” and therefore isn’t something we can quantify en masse.

It improves balance, flexibility and core strength

A review of 10 studies looking into the effects of pilates found that doing pilates regularly can noticeably improve balance, flexibility and quality of life in older adults aged 60 to 80. The review concluded that pilates was especially beneficial in reducing the risk of falling, going so far as to suggest that GPs might be better off thinking about prescribing pilates to elderly patients. 

“Well known for it’s core-strengthening benefits, people who practice pilates regularly can experience better function and strength of the muscles of the torso,” explains Reeves. 

“Core strength plays a part in decreasing back and hip pain and improving pelvic floor function.”

Reformer pilates has been linked to lower back pain relief.

Pilates may help with back pain

Joseph Pilates claimed to have been inspired to create his method during his internment on the Isle of Man during the First World War. It’s there that he’s said to have worked on his fellow inmates, coming up with ideas for stretching and strengthening the body. No doubt pain relief was one of the core aims initially and it’s certainly one reason people turn to pilates today.

A Brazilian study into the effectiveness of equipment-based pilates and non-equipment mat pilates to treat chronic lower-back pain divided 86 patients into two groups and got them to attend either 12 reformer or mat pilates classes over a six-week period. It found that equipment-based pilates was superior to the mat version for reducing disability and kinesiophobia (a fear of exercising after picking up injury). The study didn’t look into whether pilates as a whole could reduce back pain, but instead assessed the two kinds of pilates against each other. For back pain, reformer pilates came out ahead.

Saying that, D’Averio explains that both mat and reformer are great for injury rehab and body strength. “It’s hard to compare the two, but generally, mat training teaches how to control the muscles while reformer training adds resistance to enhance strength. The exercises performed on the reformer are the same as that performed on the mat.”

You only need to do it once a week to see and feel changes

Thinking about trying a multi-week pilates challenge? You don’t have to do much to reap huge benefits. Take this study from the journal Physiology & Behavior, which looked into the physical and psychological benefits of young women doing pilates once a week for 10 weeks.

It found that in just 10 sessions, women made “significant improvements” in skeletal muscle mass, flexibility, core strength and body awareness. That led researchers to conclude that “once a week pilates training is enough to trigger detectable benefits in young sedentary women”. If you’re time-poor, pilates might be exactly the workout you’ve been looking for. 

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Pilates keeps us active into old age

“I have many elderly clients who love coming to my pilates classes to keep them mobile,” says D’Averio. She even recalls having a client who fell in love with pilates as a means of moving with Parkinson’s disease – a condition that severely impacts motor control. “He said that the classes really helped him with the stiffness that was caused by his illness.

“Pilates is amazing for preventing injuries as well as rehabilitation and is therefore a safe form of exercise at any age.”

A 2022 review looking into the benefits of pilates for older people concluded that the “wellbeing improvements in the elderly are enabled by an association between the social and the physical components of practising pilates, thus contributing to a healthier and more active ageing”. 

In other words, pilates keeps us active, slows down mental ageing and reduces the risk of falling.

Images: Getty

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