Practising Pilates

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Pilates helps to improve your flexibility, posture and balance. Ruth Ganthony finds out why it’s a great accompaniment to aerobic exercise.

Pilates is a form of exercise that aims to enhance your body’s strength and flexibility, explains Winona Holl, Chairman of the Pilates Foundation.

“It’s a holistic exercise system designed to mobilise, strengthen, stabilise and balance the body,” she says. “It develops the whole body including inner muscles that you may not even know are there.”

Exercises that encourage flexibility, such as Pilates – as well as tai chi and yoga – help you to stretch your muscles and maintain or improve your range of movement in a joint or a series of joints and muscles.

We should all aim to do activities that build our muscle strength at least twice a week. This can help us keep mobile and independent, which is particularly important as we get older.

Pilates can also help us to improve our posture and restore our bodies to balance. “People are not always aware of their habits and how they hold themselves,” says Winona, 44, who has been practising since 2000. “When you walk, you might put all your weight on your right foot and only step lightly on your left, creating imbalances and tensions. It’s about retraining your everyday movement patterns. If you aren’t aware of the imbalances, you can’t correct them.”

As the primary focus of Pilates is not aerobic, you should combine it with 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise such as walking, swimming or cycling.

The beauty is that Pilates can be fine-tuned to suit individual needs.

So who is it suitable for? Winona, who has been a teacher for seven years, encourages anyone to give Pilates a go. “It’s gentle but focused,” she says. “You only have to be flexible in how you think about approaching exercise and movement. The beauty is that it can be fine-tuned to suit individual needs – from helping sedentary people become more mobile to improving athletic ability and dancers’ flexibility.”

However, if you’ve had surgery or have a heart condition you should check with your GP or a specialist before you start a new form of exercise. As Pilates becomes more advanced and you are able to flow more quickly through the exercises, it is possible to introduce a cardiovascular element.

Main methods

There are two key areas of Pilates: mat work and studio (which uses apparatus). Both types of Pilates target specific areas of the body with controlled movements to help improve core muscle strength and spinal alignment. It has six key principles: centring, control, concentration, precision, breath and flow, and aims to incorporate all of these in every movement. However, mat work tends to be what people more commonly associate with Pilates. This involves a mixture of floor-based and standing exercises.

You may use some small pieces of equipment, like resistance rings and sitting blocks, when you do mat work, but it’s your body working against gravity that provides the biggest challenge. Mat-based Pilates can be practised at home as well as in most gyms and its accessibility has meant it’s become incredibly popular, although exercises can be tricky to master at first without supervision and guidance. It’s a good idea to go to a Pilates class to learn the basics. “The first step is to find a great teacher who will help you understand the fundamentals,” says Winona.

The first step is to find a great teacher who will help you understand the fundamentals.

Studio Pilates uses bigger spring-loaded resistance machines to help guide and train the body. These are not portable and you have to go to a specialist class to use them. You pay to use the dedicated space and equipment, which is why studio Pilates is more expensive than mat work. Studio classes are often smaller or on a one-to-one basis; a private session in London could cost up to £60.

Getting started

The Pilates Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation. You can search for classes in and around your area at pilatesfoundation.com. Your local gym may also run classes, which you may be entitled to attend as part of your existing membership or on a pay-as-you-go basis.

When choosing a class, the most important thing is to find a teacher whom you like and who is qualified, either with a nationally-recognised level 3 qualification or accredited by a Pilates training body.

Most classes will provide all the equipment you need; you just have to turn up wearing some comfortable clothes (no shoes are needed). Mat-work classes cost between £8 and £12 for an hour, although the cost varies depending on location and format. If you’d rather stick to the comfort of your own home, there are various DVDs, books and videos that can help you with your DIY routine. Of course, these won’t be able to assess and correct you.

More interested in yoga? Read our full guide, with chair-based exercises you can try.

Pilates - your questions answered

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What are the origins of Pilates?

Joseph Pilates founded the exercise technique in the early 20th century to help people with poor mobility. He attached springs to patients’ hospital beds and supported their arms and legs while they moved. This led to the development of his famous piece of spring-loaded equipment, the ‘cadillac’.

Is it just another form of yoga?

Both develop strength, balance, flexibility, posture and good breathing technique, but yoga focuses on finding postures and breathing in them, while Pilates is more about precise movements.

Do I need to be flexible?

No, you don’t – it helps improve your flexibility, and exercises can be adapted to suit anyone’s needs.

Is the main aim of pilates to give you strong abs?

Pilates seeks to develop controlled movement from a strong core, so while your abdomen is part of this, so are your hips, lower and upper back, buttocks, and inner thighs. It’s an all-over body workout.

Will pilates help me lose weight?

Pilates is not primarily about weight loss but it can help support it by toning up your body and giving you a more streamlined appearance.

I’ve got a bad back, can I still do pilates?

Pilates is an excellent form of exercise to improve core stability for a healthy spine. If you have a back injury, check with your GP first that pilates is suitable for you. You can then get a letter to take to your class, which details your condition and anything that you should avoid.

Remember to speak to your doctor before taking up a new exercise regime.

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