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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 carriage.

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 differently."

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."

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