The Power of Pilates

A century-old practice is gaining traction among those seeking longer and leaner muscles, improved balance and flexibility, a stronger core, and more

Reformer Pilates
Reformer Pilates

Martha Stewart claims to do it three times a week as part of her wellness routine. Tiger Woods reportedly does it to help his golf swing. Jamie Lee Curtis says it’s “the only exercise program that has changed my body and made me feel great.” Jennifer Aniston said in a recent interview, “If you have an excellent teacher and you understand the beauty of it, it’s like a moving meditation.” In a 2017 Instagram post, Sylvester Stallone described it as “an amazing workout but definitely not for the faint of heart.” Even in comparison to all of his other athletic experiences, he exclaimed that this workout pushes a person to the limit and beyond.

Celebrities and countless others are extolling the virtues of Pilates, an exercise method developed in the early 1900s by German gymnast, trainer, and fitness pioneer Joseph H. Pilates. Designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body with specific exercises coupled with intentional breathing, Pilates has gained widespread popularity as a method not only for rehabilitation and sports training, but also as a complement to overall fitness. 

After first finding a niche among injury-prone dancers, Pilates has, in recent decades, developed into a mainstream phenomenon among people of all ages and fitness levels. Classes are offered in a variety of formats: group mat classes, group Reformer classes, or private or semiprivate studio classes using machines such as the Reformer, Cadillac, Tower, and Stability Chair.

The equipment can be intimidating, and correct form is crucial to avoid injury, say practitioners. That’s why most Pilates instructors offer a private introductory session before students join a group class. “How you move is more important than how much weight you lift or how many reps you can do,” says Gini Murphy, a certified Pilates instructor and owner of S.T.A.R. Pilates (“Strength Training and Reconditioning”) in the Miracle Mile plaza, as she discusses the difference between Pilates and traditional strength training. “You’ve got 50 minutes to work out with me, so let us work out as optimally as you can.” 

The objective of lifting weights, Murphy points out, is to make microtears to build mass. “Unlike traditional strength training exercises, Pilates won’t bulk you up. Rather, it will lengthen and strengthen, cultivating a longer, leaner look.” 

Pilates is geared toward building strength and gaining better balance.
Pilates is geared toward building strength and gaining better balance.

Murphy offers up the following analogy to further illustrate her point. “Two people—a weightlifter and a Pilates instructor—go to a buffet table. The weightlifter uses a porcelain plate, and the Pilates instructor uses a plastic plate. Both put the same amount of food on their plates, and then both trip and fall. Whose plate is going to shatter? Both held the same load; but the pliable one will bounce, and the porcelain plate will shatter. It’s the same with the body. If rigid muscle hits the ground, versus one that moves with you when you hit the ground, it may lead to increased injury. Pilates creates strength and length. It’s gentler on an aging body.” 

Murphy, who holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance, was introduced to Pilates in 1991 and immediately incorporated the method into her dance classes. After she became a certified Stott Pilates post-rehabilitative instructor, post-rehabilitative breast cancer exercise specialist, and Cardiolates teacher, Murphy’s journey led her to work at physical therapy centers, where she was exposed to sports rehabilitation, postoperative rehabilitation, and aiding aging populations. 

Since opening S.T.A.R. Pilates 11 years ago with her husband, Murphy has worked with clients ranging from 20-somethings trying it out for the first time to devotees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who value the increased strength, stability, and mobility Pilates offers when rehabilitating from injuries or joint replacement and managing musculoskeletal conditions. “I used to say the little white ball kept me in business,” quips Murphy, referring to golf-related injuries. “Now, it’s the yellow pickleball that keeps me in business.” 

“The beauty of Pilates is that you can adapt the equipment and exercises to benefit many types of clients—from athletes to those with hip, knee, and shoulder replacements,” observes Taunya Foerster, owner of Vero Beach Pilates on 14th Avenue. A certified Pilates instructor for 23 years as well as a certified Pilates instructor trainer, Foerster has a degree in exercise physiology as well as credentials in Pilates for rehabilitation and Pilates for golf.

She says 40 percent of her clients are men seeking to improve their golf games; they find that they can hit the ball straighter and farther because of the exercises.

A Reformer class is led by Gini Murphy, owner of S.T.A.R. Pilates.
A Reformer class is led by Gini Murphy, owner of S.T.A.R. Pilates.

Foerster also incorporates Pilates into her balance training sessions for people with Parkinson’s disease. “Whether you have Parkinson’s or are just getting older, we all start to lose our balance and need core stability to help stop ourselves from falling.”

“One of the things I always say to people is Pilates gives you long, lean, strong, flexible muscles,” Foerster says. “You don’t have to stretch after Pilates. Many people who lift heavily are very inflexible.” 

Foerster cites an example of a bodybuilder she once knew who had worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger at Venice Beach. “He tried my Pilates class with a group of ladies, and he was struggling. He had no idea how hard it was. It looks effortless, but it’s much harder than it looks.” 

A self-confessed gym rat and athlete for much of her life, Foerster says, “It’s all about consistency. I recommend Pilates two to three times a week, depending on what else you’re doing. You need to strengthen your core and build a baseline that you can maintain.” And, with over 500 exercises in the Pilates repertoire, she points out, the sessions never get boring. 

Several studies point to the physical and mental health benefits of Pilates. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that participants who practiced Pilates for one hour three times a week for eight weeks had significantly greater improvement in balance, stability, and mobility scores than those who did yoga or nothing at all. 

Equipment used in Pilates is adapted to the fitness level of the client.
Equipment used in Pilates is adapted to the fitness level of the client.

Other research credits Pilates for reducing lower-back pain and increasing abdominal endurance, core strength, flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance. A 2018 review of eight Pilates studies revealed that participants reported a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue, along with an increase in energy.

Is Pilates a stand-alone workout? That depends.

Physical activity guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two or more moderate- or high-intensity strength training sessions each week. Older adults should heed the same guidelines only to the extent that their physical abilities and conditions allow. In other words, Pilates can be a great complement to a well-rounded fitness regimen that incorporates cardiovascular and strength training. But for those with physical limitations, the low-impact therapeutic benefits of Pilates alone far outweigh abstaining from physical activity. 

Eighty-one-year-old Joan Hutton of Vero Beach has been practicing Pilates for 16 years and attends Murphy’s class once a week. Despite having scoliosis, a pacemaker, a heart valve problem, and a hip replacement, Hutton continues to lead an active vegan lifestyle. “At 40, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If you don’t take care of your health, nobody else will.’ Without your health, you have nothing.”

A registered nurse and owner of a health care executive placement firm, Hutton credits her balance, coordination, and sense of stability to Pilates. “I love it!” she enthuses. “It’s a good way to start the day!” 

Mary Sloan works out on the Pilates Cadillac under the watchful eye of Taunya Foerster, owner of Vero Beach Pilates
Mary Sloan works out on the Pilates Cadillac under the watchful eye of Taunya Foerster, owner of Vero Beach Pilates.

Vero Beach residents Judy and Tom Peschio enjoy their semiprivate Pilates classes with Foerster twice a week. “It’s given me strength in my core and better posture,” says 75-year-old Judy, who serves as commodore of the Vero Beach Yacht Club and has practiced Pilates for more than 20 years. “I’m strong for being small, and I think it’s due to Pilates. Taunya also incorporates a lot of balance work, and that has helped my flexibility.”

 Mary Sloan, 71, of Vero Beach started doing Pilates 15 years ago at her doctor’s recommendation to alleviate sciatica pain. Now, the former vice president of risk management for Carnival Corporation does a private and a group class with Foerster every week. “Pilates has not only been good for stretching and strengthening my back, but it’s also helped my golf game. I can hit the ball better!” 

All three women stress the importance of working with a qualified instructor who thoroughly understands exercise physiology, proper alignment, and the fitness method inspired by a forward-thinking man more than a century ago—a man with health issues of his own.

Born in Germany in 1883, Joseph Hubertus Pilates was a sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. Introduced to gymnastics, body building, and martial arts by his father, he dedicated his life to improving his health through fitness. In 1912, Pilates traveled to England, where he found work as a circus acrobat, professional boxer, and self-defense instructor for policemen. 

When World War I broke out, Pilates and other German citizens were taken into custody as enemies and interned for the duration of the war. At the British internment camps, Pilates led daily exercise routines that became the basis for Pilates mat work. He helped rehabilitate detainees suffering from diseases or injuries by creating resistance equipment from items available to him, such as bed springs and beer keg rings. They were the precursors to current Pilates machines. 

Practicing Pilates is thought to create longer, leaner muscles.
Practicing Pilates is thought to create longer, leaner muscles.

After the war, Pilates was repatriated to Germany, where he trained the Hamburg police in self-defense and collaborated with prominent figures in dance and fitness. When he was asked to train members of the German army, Pilates emigrated to America in 1925. On the ship, he met his future wife, Clara. A trained nurse, Clara worked alongside Pilates to establish a New York City studio that attracted many students from the dance and performing arts community for training and rehabilitation. 

His students included well-known dancers George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and their protégés. Despite a penchant for cigars and parties, Pilates maintained his fit physique throughout his life. He died in 1967 from emphysema at the age of 83. Clara Pilates continued to teach and manage their studio for 10 years following his death. Today, instructors like Murphy and Foerster carry on Pilates’ legacy of whole-body movement for fitness and rehabilitation. 

Is Pilates for you? You won’t know until you try it. Check the credentials of instructors, visit local studios, consult your doctor, and take an introductory class. It may be a “stretch” from your current routine, but it also may keep you as pliable as that plastic plate! 

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