Research supports the practice of Pilates to achieve some health benefits

Pilates is a beneficial exercise to enhance flexibility and muscular fitness and endurance, particularly for intermediate and advanced practitioners, but may have limited potential to notably increase cardiovascular fitness and reduce body weight.

New research conducted by Michele Olson, Ph.D., FACSM and presented today at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition supports the practice of Pilates to achieve some health benefits, and adds to the knowledge about the technique

In a recent study of the method, Olson and her team measured the metabolic and caloric cost of basic (beginner), intermediate, and advanced Pilates mat workouts to assess what the popular technique may and may not do for exercisers. Participants performed basic, intermediate and advanced workouts in random order while the research team monitored heart rate, metabolic rate and rate of perceived exertion.

Results indicated basic Pilates activity translated into low-moderate intensity, comparable to active stretching. The intermediate workout was shown to be of a moderate intensity level, similar to the energy requirement of speed walking at a rate of 4 to 4.5 mph. The advanced workout was found to be of high-moderate intensity, equivalent to basic stepping on a six-inch platform.

The team also found the most dramatic increase in caloric cost occurred when participants progressed from basic to intermediate or advanced levels of training. Additionally, the duration of the workout affected energy cost in intermediate sessions. For example, a 30-minute session at an intermediate level burned 180 calories, and continuing the workout burned an additional 90 calories each 15 minutes. It was also found that men burned slightly more calories than women (likely due to the fact that men are larger and have more muscle mass). Finally, energy costs varied dramatically within the workout based on the type of movement. Side bend, jack-knife and boomerang positions produced high-energy costs; sealed twist, hundred, and leg circle positions were considered low-energy.

In another phase of the study, the team measured abdominal muscle activity during key Pilates mat exercises. Participants performed five Pilates “ab” exercises, then basic crunches for comparison. Results showed that the rectus abdominis muscle, which runs along the mid section of abdomen, was challenged similarly for most of the Pilates exercises. However, the Teaser exercise and Roll-Up challenged this abdominal muscle more than the crunch. The external obliques, the muscles on either side of the abdomen, were challenged to a greater degree by all of the Pilates exercises compared to the basic crunch. In particular, the Criss-Cross was the most effective for the external obliques. However, the Teaser exercise also activated the hip flexors to a marked degree. Thus, this exercise may be best reserved for very advanced individuals or athletes.

Olson noted that other research has shown Pilates training to be effective for flexibility but limited for body composition when done just once a week. Another study specific to the Pilates Reformer, a sliding table with pulleys that attach to the arms and legs, found significant improvements in people’s sit and reach capabilities, but no improvement on body composition. Leg strength and muscular endurance were also highlighted as major benefits from one Reformer study. However, Olson notes more research on Pilates will provide additional insight into the benefits of the activity.

Some misconceptions of the exercise technique center on claims that Pilates lengthens and leans muscles, streamlines the body and builds muscle tone, says Olson.

“People made these assumptions some 80 years ago because dancers often practiced Pilates, and they often have long, lean bodies. Back then, the physiology research wasn’t available compared to what we have now,” said Olson. “Muscles cannot grow longer, but you can improve your flexibility from the exercises. Muscles are lean anyway; they are non-fat structures in our body. You can increase your lean tissue, but what you’re doing is actually putting on muscle. So you are actually increasing muscle, which is a good thing, but not narrowing the muscles.”

Olson says the practice of Pilates promises to become even more mainstream, and warns that this can potentially create a problem with a lack of quality instructors. “A qualified Pilates instructor has studied for five or more years, and may have even traveled and taken intensive courses from masters. There are more than 500 exercises, and it takes more than a workshop or short course to learn and teach it correctly.”

ACSM’s Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition is going on now at The Flamingo Las Vegas Resort. For more information on the event, or to speak with staff in the on-site press office, please call (702) 784-7332 (through Friday, April 1, 2005).

The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 20,000 International, National and Regional members are dedicated to promoting and integrating scientific research, education and practical applications of sports medicine and exercise science to maintain and enhance physical performance, fitness, health and quality of life.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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