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The Benefits of Pilates

Just what can Pilates exercises do for you?

Pilates Benefit No. 2: A Stronger Core

But how about flattening the abs? Can Pilates exercises really give you a washboard stomach?

Experts warn that it's important not to equate a stronger core with a flatter stomach.

"When people want 'flat abs,' they are usually looking for weight loss, not abdominal strength and core support," says George. "More than touting the benefits of Pilates for flat abs, we should be touting the benefits of Pilates for a stronger, healthy back and body. If along the way, you do the other components of fitness and trim the body down, yes, you're going to have a flatter midsection."

As you develop body awareness, stand straighter, and gain flexibility, "Pilates will shift your shape," says Galliano. "But just attending a group mat class may or may not change your body."

Kevin Bowen, co-founder of the Pilates Method Alliance and director of special projects, says it is important that abdominals are flexible, not just hard.

"A flexible muscle is a strong muscle," says Bowen. "A hard muscle may feel good and give an interesting look, but if you don't have the flexibility and the balance and the functionality that you need to allow your body to function properly, sooner or later, it's going to show up someplace else."

Pilates Benefit No. 3: Body Control

Galliano, who has sculpted the bodies of Madonna, Cameron Diaz, Sting, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Uma Thurman, says Pilates works because it teaches you how to move.

"Unless you are taught how to move and discover with your teacher what is blocking you (for example, keeping your shoulders up too high), you will never achieve body symmetry," Galliano says. "When you start getting control of your body, it gives you a great degree of satisfaction."

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

The Roots of Pilates Exercises

The discipline was created by German-born Joseph H. Pilates a century ago. A sickly child plagued with asthma and rickets, he grew up to be obsessed about the perfect body. He sought a discipline 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 on a strong abdomen, deep stretching, and focused breathing. It worked for him. Joseph Pilates became a boxer, diver, skier, gymnast, yoga devotee -- and an incredible physical testament to his method.

Pilates taught his method to wounded English soldiers during World War I, using springs he removed from their hospital beds to assist them as he developed techniques to increase their range of motion. It was from these crude devices that he developed the equipment still used today, including the reformer, Cadillac, Wunda chair, ladder barrel, and spine corrector.

Pilates emigrated to the U.S. in 1926, teaching his method first to boxers and later ballet dancers, until the rest of the world caught on.

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