People who dance are easy to spot, even offstage. “They’re very aware of their body’s position in space, and they move almost like cats,” says Marie-Louise Bird, a Pilates researcher and post-doctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia. “But most of us are more like puppy dogs, moving without much attention paid to our posture.”
Luckily, the puppy dogs among us don't have to go to dance school to get better body awareness. They can just do Pilates.
Ever since Joseph Pilates founded his studio in New York City about a century ago, the training method has focused on strengthening abdominal and trunk muscles—called the “core"—through hundreds of very specific movements. The first Pilates clients were ballet dancers looking for a way to improve their posture and control their movements.
Pilates looks deceptively easy. But the often-tiny movements improve balance and core strength, Bird’s research suggests. Pilates does this in part by reinforcing the bond between mind and muscles, helping people engage the right muscles in the core. This leads to better posture and control over the body's movements, says Cherie Wells, a senior lecturer in physical therapy at Australia’s Griffith University. Wells’s research has found that the core-strengthening perks of Pilates may also ease pain and improve daily life for people suffering from chronic low-back pain.
Some research has also linked Pilates to better flexibility, trunk stability, injury prevention and athletic performance. (Some former and current NFL players, including Antonio Brown and Martellus Bennett, are fans.)
But it's easy to do Pilates incorrectly, so if you want to experience all these advantages, good form is essential, Bird says. That requires a good teacher, at least in the beginning. “Results come from a structured class taught by a certified instructor,” says Ann Gibson, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, who warns newbies not to assume they can pick up Pilates by looking at a few online pictures or guides. “There needs to be a lot of focus on rolling down or up from the ground, one vertebrae at a time.”
The other unique part of Pilates isn't physical, but mental. One of the key concepts of Pilates is called “centering,” or understanding that all movements originate in your core. “Like yoga, it’s about breathing and focus and being mindful of your body’s movements," Gibson says. At least one study has linked Pilates to enhanced mindfulness and something called sensory awareness, which may induce relaxation, mood improvements and stress reduction.
It won't surprise anyone familiar with the classic "hundred" exercise—a grueling Pilates pose performed for 100 beats—that the practice also does something special to the stomach. “Pilates seems to activate the deeper abdominal muscles more than conventional gym exercises,” says Duncan Critchley, a lecturer and exercise researcher at King’s College London. Research from Spain shows Pilates also eliminates “asymmetries” in the abdominal muscles the line the sides of your torso.
It's probably not the best workout for those looking for a vigorous sweat, says Wells. Newer forms of the practice use machines to increase resistance and even aerobic intensity—reformer Pilates and jumpboard Pilates are two examples—but they're less studied than the traditional forms of the exercise.
Look around online and you'll find plenty of anecdotal evidence that Pilates can help people lose weight or, even more likely, lose inches, but Gibson says her findings were mixed when it came to Pilates’s ability to reduce waist circumference.
But if you're searching for a mind-body practice that strengthens the body and has a few pleasant side benefits—like great abs and more poise—Pilates is certainly worth a try.