Companion to Peak Performance

By Diane M. Marty

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2004.

What do Gwyneth Paltrow, Rod Stewart, and Martina Navratilova have in common? No idea? Would it help if I added the San Francisco 49ers? No?

They all practice Pilates.

These popular personalities — and so many others — have discovered a winning combination of toning, timing, and training in this exercise regime.

While the popularity of Pilates gains more momentum each day, this exercise program had a slow start.

Sharing the last name of its inventor, Pilates had its unlikely origins in an English World War I internment camp. Joseph Pilates defied the medical philosophy of those times by encouraging motion as a prescription for illness and injury among the hospital’s residents. He believed that — far from simply waiting for bones to knit, pain to pass, or stitches to heal — patients needed to be proactive.

“So, Pilates developed an exercise regime based on flowing movements, balance, control, and coordination,” says Kevin Bowen, president and CEO of the Miami-based Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit, professional association dedicated to the teachings of Joseph Pilates. “And, with his exercise system, Pilates found he could speed recoveries, boost immunity, and increase endurances.”

In order to achieve optimum fitness, Pilates believed in three fundamental principles. First, he advocated a whole-health approach to life. Good food, water, air, and exercise were essential to reaching peak condition. Second, he felt good health demanded a whole-body commitment. Third, full and deep breathing was a key element to a long and hearty life.

“Pilates is a unique exercise program,” says Alycea Ungaro, author of The Pilates Promise and instructor at Tribeca Bodyworks in New York City. “From the outset, students notice an unfamiliar shift in their stance. They stand and sit taller. And, with their first session, participants walk out of the studio with the method.”

Whether targeting the typical weak points of lower bodies — like soft stomachs or thick thighs — or focusing on sculpting shoulders and arms, Pilates is a proven people-pleaser.

“Pilates also offers the optimum in toning potential,” Ungaro says. After just 10 sessions, Pilates whittles waists, tucks tummies, and raises tushes. And 20 classes into the regime, bodies appear longer and more limber.

“Other programs work on one or, at the most, several muscles of a particular group at a time,” says Simone Schmidt, founder and president of the Roxbury Pilates Spa in Beverly Hills, Calif. But, no matter how many other muscle groups are involved in Pilates, each exercise includes the body’s core. Every single variation of the exercise engages the midsection muscles. So, that area between the bottom of the ribcage and the lowest point of the buttocks remains active throughout each session.

“You’ll do better in every activity — whether it involves spinning a hula hoop or doing the hustle — with a Pilates background,” Ungaro says.

More than its ability to flatten stomachs, proponents point to this exercise’s curative properties. Schmidt is familiar with the healing potential of Pilates from personal experience. When her 20-year ballet career ended abruptly with a bum knee, Schmidt turned to this exercise to recover. Although she admits having a love-hate relationship with the machines that are sometimes used in the routines, they proved to be her passport back into the world of professional dancing.

The Payoffs

Every practitioner has a favorite Pilates success story. Bowen knows of a doctor with herniated disks who was able to avoid surgery and now lives pain-free. And one of Ungaro’s clients, a woman with multiple sclerosis, has been able to retain mobility and independence because of the remedial powers of Pilates.

But even Pilates, with all its versatility, can’t be the only type of exercise for a health conscious person. “Pilates lacks a cardiovascular component,” Ungaro says. Neither is this exercise known for its strengthening, stretching, or spiritual side. So, it’s important to pair Pilates with the proper partner.

“Because of its static postures and full stretches, yoga is a capable colleague for Pilates,” Schmidt says. The duo works well for Madonna, a four-times-a-week client at the spa. Schmidt also notes that — because of the cardio deficit in Pilates — running and walking are also good companions for Pilates.

Bowen concurs, but adds that the complementary activities should be done outdoors when possible. “After all, Joseph was a huge proponent of fresh air,” he says.

Programming the body to work sympathetically and instinctively with the mind remains a critical objective of this exercise program. And practice is the only way to embed these reflexes. To achieve the best results, Ungaro recommends three, one-hour sessions per week for the first 10 weeks. After that initial period, one to two sessions each week are sufficient for maintenance. “Obviously the more you do, the better you’ll feel, but any amount of Pilates is good for you,” Ungaro says.

Schmidt suggests patrons start one on one with an instructor for at least a couple of sessions. “Achieving proper form is essential,” she says.

Some participants prefer using Pilates machines. Others insist mat work is the best alternative. The truth is both groups are right. Moving between mat and machine sessions may present the best conditioning. “The entire Pilates system includes both mat and machine components,” Ungaro says. “Originally, Joseph Pilates created the machines to assist people with weak muscles. But mat work can stand alone as it did before Mr. Pilates invented the machines. The machines offer more resistance, but you can generate resistance in your muscles by using your mind to imagine your body moving with pressure. The mat work remains the basic foundation of the system, and the ultimate goal of the system is to be able to perform the advanced mat exercises without any assistance from the machines.”

Bowen says another advantage mat work has over the machines is its portability. “You can perform mat work anywhere,” he says.

For people who are interested in Pilates but unable to attend sessions at a studio, it is possible to practice at home. “Exposure to an actual instructor is the best option,” Bowen says. But for those people contemplating practicing sans teacher or studio, Bowen suggests purchasing several comprehensive Pilates guides. “Start with beginner versions before progressing to advanced lessons,” he says. “The ideal books and videos should include educational segments about the body and movement, as well as an explanation of the basic principles and elements of Pilates.”

Ungaro adds, “The best way to choose good books and videos is to check them out at a library, and decide for yourself. Clearance bins at the larger chain stores often have good Pilates material, also.”

To set up your own Pilates studio at home, Ungaro suggests you may also want to purchase a Magic Circle or an inexpensive ball. “A pair of two- or three-pound dumbbells is a must, as is a cushioned area — created with a few towels, blankets, or thick carpeting — to pad the spine,” she says. Bowen suggests that when buying a good exercise mat, “choose one that is well padded, yet not too soft. Avoid yoga mats.” Schmidt encourages interested partakers not to work out at home if rambunctious rug rats, ceaseless chores, and eternal errands become a distraction.

Better with Massage

Pilates, with its intense mind and body component, merges well with bodywork. At the Roxbury Pilates Spa, clients can opt from a menu of choices to include pre- or post-Pilates massages to enhance the healing and therapeutic properties of the exercise. “Other modalities, such as the Feldenkrais method or cranio-sacral therapy, support Pilates programs because of their capacity to assist the human body in developing to its full movement potential,” Bowen says.

And, while practicing Pilates may not bring you the fame of personalities like Paltrow, Stewart, and Navratilova, or the ability to pass a football like a 49er, you may reach places — like your toes — you haven’t been able to touch in years.