Have You Tried Pilates Yet?
The century-old exercise program called Pilates is experiencing a resurgence as people look for better ways to exercise and improve strength and well-being.
On a bed-like machine with a moving carriage, straps and
springs, Robin Harrison balances on her shoulders with her bare feet in straps
above her head. From this impressive position, she bends her knees toward her
ears and deeply exhales as she articulates her spine back onto the
Harrison is doing Pilates (puh-LAH-teez), the system of
strengthening and stretching exercises designed to develop the body's core
(abdominals, low back, hips, and gluteals) and the hottest trend in the
mind-body fitness craze sweeping the nation. The Little Rock, Ark.,
pharmaceutical sales rep is coached through an hour-long series of positions on
a mat and several different machines resembling medieval torture equipment with
names such as the Reformer, the Cadillac, and the Barrel. When she's through,
she feels stretched and strengthened.
"Around my whole midsection I feel so much leaner," she
says. "It's not just me -- I've gotten compliments from other people
noticing I look thinner. I've lost inches and my clothes fit
Harrison, 35, was drawn to Pilates six months ago with its
promise of more lengthened muscles, increased flexibility (she's a runner with
short, tight hamstrings) and a sleeker shape. In a few months, she has whittled
her stomach, trimmed her hips, and stretched her hamstrings, all without
wearing out her running shoes.
Once known only to dancers and celebrities, Pilates has become
more mainstream, with studios popping up like Starbucks across the country.
Many health clubs have jumped on the bandwagon as well, including Pilates mat
classes in their schedules. Enthusiasts everywhere sing its praises to all
within earshot -- bragging about how they consciously sit and stand straighter.
Back and neck pain have disappeared for some, inches have for others.
"I could really tell the difference after about two
months," says Harrison. "Since I was stronger in my abs, I had a lot
less back pain."
Little Rock lawyer Wooten Epes has been plagued with chronic
low back pain since a series of car accidents left him with a fusion of two
vertebrae in his lumbar spine. He began doing Pilates with a private instructor
a year ago and has been able to build muscle mass in the supporting muscles of
his back, legs, and gluteals.
"After the first session I knew it was exactly what I
needed," says Epes, 55. "It allowed me to exercise and not be afraid I
was going to hurt my back."
The once-underweight Epes gained muscle mass and a new lease on
life. "I have more stamina," he says. "It has allowed me to do more
things without having more pain."
The discipline is far from new, born from the mind of
German-born Joseph H. Pilates nearly a century ago. A
sickly child plagued with asthma and rickets, he
obsessed about the perfect body, something to combine the physique of the
ancient Greeks with the meditative strength of the East. The result was
a system of exercises he called contrology, requiring intense concentration and
centered mainly on a strong abdomen and deep stretching. It worked for him.
Pilates became a boxer, diver, skier, gymnast, yoga devotee, and incredible
physical testament to his method.