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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.

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Pilates taught his method to wounded English soldiers during World War I, using springs he removed from their hospital beds to support and assist them as he developed techniques to increase their range of motion.

When Pilates immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, dance titans George Balanchine and Martha Graham, on the lookout for safe exercises and rehabilitation fitness for their dancers, embraced Pilates, saving it from obscurity until the rest of the world could catch on.

Along with the celebrity appeal, the trend toward a mindful approach to fitness has helped elevate Pilates to the forefront of health clubs and rehabilitation communities alike.

"People aren't getting what they were looking for in their traditional health club workouts," says Aliesa George, Pilates instructor and studio owner in Wichita, Kan. "They don't see their bodies changing doing step aerobics or running on the treadmill, so they're looking for other activities."

Performed in a variety of combinations and levels of difficulty, exercises to build what Pilates called the "powerhouse" engage the mind and body in a fluid and precise rhythm. It's a thinking exercise.

"More people want to tune in," says George. "They're looking for a mental connection. Pilates is something you can't do while you're thinking about something else."

There's an intrinsic relevance to it, says Little Rock internist Hoyte Pyle, MD. Instead of working major muscle groups in isolation, says Pyle, "Pilates works the whole body in synergy," which is how we should be moving on a daily basis.

Instead, we spend most of the day sitting, often slouched over a computer, says Ellie Herman, author of Pilates for Dummies and a Pilates trainer with studios in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.

"There's so much sitting, everyone has back and neck problems," says Herman, who originally started doing Pilates to rehabilitate from a dance injury. "They're starting to realize they need to do something to help strengthen their posture."

For many, particularly baby boomers who are becoming more aware of increasingly aging bodies, stooping shoulders, and greater propensity for injury, Pilates serves as an insurance policy of sorts.

The core muscles of the back and pelvis anchor the body and keep the spine properly aligned in movement, whether it's picking up a baby or darting for that tennis ball, says Boise, Idaho, physical therapist Sara Carpenter. "Neglecting the core sets you up for injury. Strengthening it takes pressure off the compensating knees, back, and shoulders."

Unfortunately, most of the exercise we do doesn't involve movement of the spine, says George. "We work our arms and our legs, holding our bodies still. As for the stomach, we either skip it altogether, or we do a few crunches at the end of a workout."

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