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Working Your Back

How good is Pilates?

From World War I to Weekend Warriors continued...

The new simplicity is only part of the appeal. For many people -- particularly aging baby boomers mindful of their increasingly creaky physiques -- Pilates serves as a kind of insurance policy. The core muscles in your back and pelvis anchor your body and help to keep your spine properly aligned as you move. If you neglect those core muscles, says Elizabeth Larkham, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise and a dance medicine specialist at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, you're setting yourself up for injury. Take the time to work them -- by doing Pilates or other forms of exercise -- and you'll be rewarded with a stronger, sleeker, more resilient body.

Where many other forms of exercise (including the nefarious abdominal crunch) work only the superficial muscles, instructors say that the specific alignment and careful contractions required in Pilates go deeper to work muscle fibers below the surface. In another exercise called "The Hundreds," I lie flat on my back and contract my pelvic muscles, lifting my head off the floor toward my knees while keeping my arms extended downward and in front of me. As Kim counts 10 sets of 10 and reminds me to breathe, I keep my tummy tucked, my back strong and tight, and my shoulders down and relaxed. This is no standard sit-up.

Pilates Requires Patience

After my first two sessions with Kim, I noticed that my stomach muscles were sore -- but I didn't notice any changes in my back. Why not? It takes time, says Larkham. The "magic" of Pilates doesn't happen overnight. In fact, she says, it takes most novice Pilates students about six weeks of twice-weekly sessions to notice a difference in how they move and for the subtleties of their movements to become second nature.

At first, the constant thinking -- OK, pull your navel in here, keep shoulders loose and down, pelvis in neutral position, and so on -- was mentally exhausting. There's no slacking off here: My eagle-eyed instructor noticed every nuance of my muscle movement and made sure that my form was flawless.

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