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Pilates - What's the Hype?


    Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) has become one of the most popular fitness methods in the United States. Every other famous actress or model seems to be doing it, and Pilates classes are offered at almost every health club around the country. Why the sudden growth spurt in an exercise method that has been around for over ninety years? The reasons for the enormous popularity of Pilates lie in its diverse benefits, which include improvements in fitness and athletic performance, enhanced flexibility, better posture, and injury prevention.

    So what is Pilates? Pilates is an exercise system named after its originator, Joseph Pilates. Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. Joseph was a very sickly child. He suffered from rickets, rheumatic fever, and asthma. As a result he was determined to make himself as strong and fit as possible. He studied anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts.

    Joseph came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of our poor health. His answer to these problems was to design a unique series of exercises that help to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as increase breathing capacity.

    Joseph was touring England as a circus performer during World War I when he was interned at a camp as an enemy alien. He encouraged all of his fellow prisoners to follow his exercise routine. However, some of the prisoners were too injured to leave their beds. Joseph attached springs to the headboards and footboards of their beds, turning them into exercise equipment for the bedridden. It was later claimed that the fact that not one of his internees died during the influenza epidemic was a direct result of his fitness training.

    Eventually Joseph Pilates decided to emigrate to the United States. He met his future wife and teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Pilates studio on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

    Your first contact with the Pilates exercise method may make you feel that it is a fusion of a number of other approaches. You may recognize elements of yoga, dance movements, everyday exercises from the gym, as well as childhood gymnastics. What makes Pilates unique is the insistence on a number of “principles.” These, too, may sound familiar, but what makes them important is the fact that they come as a package. No part is optional if the Pilates exercise is to work effectively. These are the eight Pilates principles: Control, Concentration, Centering, Breath, Fluidity, Precision, Relaxation, and Stamina.

    Perhaps the most important principle and the very heart of the Pilates method is Concentration. Pilates is not an exercise method that allows you to switch your mind off and let your body run on automatic. The mind must be alert at all times. Whether you are watching to make sure your stomach is pulled in, or focusing on the correct hand placement, your mind should be actively engaged. Pilates also focuses on the core muscles of the body. Although it involves the abdominal muscles, core strength is not about having a visible six-pack. The core muscles include not only the abdominals (specifically the transverse abdominus, the deepest layer of abdominal muscles) and lower back, but also the muscles of the pelvic floor, buttocks and hips.

    All of the core muscles work together to keep your trunk stable while your limbs are active. They hold your body upright, absorb shock, improve balance and posture, and enable you to really put some oomph in your arm and leg movements.

    If your core muscles are weak, your body doesn’t work as effectively, and other muscles have to pick up the slack. A weak core can make you old before your time. With a strong core, you may be old in years, but you won’t feel old.

    This focus on core strength and the mind/body connection has made the Pilates exercise method a legitimate form of cross-training for athletes to enhance performance and prevent injury. The highest ranked golfer, Tiger Woods, elects to use Pilates as part of his training. The best swimmers and runners in the world, the most elite dancers, figure skaters, tennis players, football players, and a host of actors, singers, and musicians are also practicing Pilates. The adaptability of Pilates and wide appeal is astounding.

    There are several benefits to incorporating Pilates into any fitness regime whether you are super-athletic or just getting started. I have witnessed changes in weight, posture, strength, flexibility, and literally seen inches melt away as a result of practicing Pilates. My clients have shared countless stories of the improvements Pilates has made in their lives.

    I discovered Pilates by accident. It was an accident that changed my life. I love to run. I took some time off to nurse an injury after completing my first marathon. I attended my first Pilates mat class during that time and was instantly hooked. I knew that Pilates was doing something amazing to my body. I could feel the change in the way I moved and a new strength I possessed in muscles I never knew were there.

    When I decided to lace up my running shoes again, I was shocked by how different I felt during my run. My body was moving with ease and I didn’t notice the normal aches and pains. I knew the difference was from practicing Pilates. I felt stronger without picking up a weight and more limber without regular stretching.

    Of course, Pilates is not a potion that cures all and brings out magical changes immediately. Change takes time, commitment, and discipline. If you are dedicated to regular Pilates sessions, three times a week for at least six weeks, positive changes are inevitable. Although some changes occur immediately, for instance, body awareness, muscle activation, or alignment, it takes time for most adaptations to become imprinted in the neuromuscular system, for muscles to transform, and for the transformation to be integrated into a person’s life.

    About the author: Heather Ebright is a Pilates instructor, running coach, and published author. To learn more about Pilates and sport specific training please visit http://www.pilates4runners.com

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