The seven wonders of Pilates

What do the London Irish rugby team and Sir Ian McKellen have in common? It’s not the start of a joke – they’re all fans of Pilates

Pilates is a form of exercise that builds up core muscles and strength, and increases flexibility. It involves working through routines of subtle movements of the spine and joints combined with gentle muscle-building work.

It’s not just professional rugby players and actors such as the 78-year-old Sir Ian McKellen, who does Pilates twice a week, who are fans. Many people use it to help relieve back pain, while thousands more just enjoy the all-over body workout, stretching and relaxation it provides.

“It puts the mind and the body back together,” says Lynne Robinson, director of Body Control Pilates, and author of a number of books including her most recent, Pilates for Life. “It has a solid structure but it can be adapted to suit every different level of fitness or condition that people might be in. I think that’s what makes it so popular.”

How Pilates can help…

  1. It relaxes you

There’s nothing like focusing on your breathing to help relieve stress and calm yourself down. Right from an early age, didn’t our mums and dads tell us to take three deep breaths and count to 10? Because each Pilates exercise is linked to your breathing cycle, a Pilates workout focuses the mind and the body. And because Pilates has a particular focus on increasing the mobility of the spine, all those stress-storing muscles around the shoulders and upper back get a tension-relieving workout too.

  1. Makes pregnancy and birth easier

Pilates focuses on your core muscles, including those of the pelvic floor, which supports your pelvic organs and gives you better control over your bladder, so helping to reduce incontinence during and after pregnancy, says Lynne Robinson. “And because it teaches you how to look after your body, if you do get aches and pains during pregnancy you can do exercises to help relieve them – very useful for times when you can’t take painkillers to help.”

  1. Is great for athletes

London Irish rugby players, like many athletes, find Pilates beneficial. Players do it once or twice a week, says Brian O’Leary, head of the team’s medical services. “We use it to strengthen specific areas that might have had a previous injury and to build up the athletes’ movement variability. It makes them more resistant to future injuries. And the guys really like it. They say it makes them feel toned and they can feel the strength in the areas they’ve been working on.”

  1. Increases muscle mass

It’s unlikely anybody has lost three stone through doing Pilates as it’s not a calorie-burning activity as aerobic exercise is. But it can still help with weight loss as Robinson says: “Pilates tones the body and increases muscle mass, putting lean muscle tissue in. The more lean muscle tissue, the higher your metabolic rate.” A high metabolism means you burn more calories even when you’re at rest. “Pilates is good for weight loss for those interested in the long haul,” adds Robinson.

  1. Increases brainpower

Could it be true that exercise can make you cleverer? Scientists from three Chinese universities think so. They studied brain activity as subjects underwent a 10-week Pilates course and concluded that the subjects’ “alpha peak power” increased as a result of the exercise.

That means the subjects showed a better attention span than they had before taking up Pilates.

  1. Reduces menopausal symptoms

The School of Global Sports Studies in South Korea found that an eight-week course of Pilates was enough to make a significant difference to menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and muscle and joint problems. Pilates also helps to build up bone density, which is vital for women to lessen the risk of osteoporosis after the menopause.

  1. Improves balance

More than 500,000 people over 65 end up in A&E due to falls each year, but falls don’t have to be inevitable to the ageing process. The Royal College of Physicians recommends that all local authorities should provide exercise programmes for fall prevention. “Pilates works on balance and improving coordination the whole time, so it helps with stability,” says Robinson.