The Wonders Of Pilates Toning up on the benefits of this popular form of exercise

Q:I've been hearing a lot about this new kind of exercise called "pilates." What is it? Would it be useful for me? I'm a 37-year-old woman who would like to lose about 15 pounds and tone up. I work at home and don't belong to a gym.

A: Pilates is a form of exercise developed during World War I by Joseph Pilates who designed a series of exercises and apparatus to rehabilitate injured war victims. Today, there are many forms of the original Pilates, which range from exercises performed on an array of equipment to variations performed on ordinary mats. Several reputable companies offer videos you can do with inexpensive equipment or mats, so you don't necessarily need to belong to a gym to take advantage of the benefits of this mind/body workout.

What are the benefits?
Strong, lean muscles without bulk
Greater awareness of your own body
Stress reduction and flexibility

Pilates focuses on teaching proper breathing, improving balance and coordination, and increasing strength, stamina and flexibility. Its fans include Madonna, Patrick Swayze and Orel Hershiser. They praise it as an effective way to reshape the body and obtain lean, elongated muscles, and enhanced posture and body alignment.

With exercises that have names like "Swan Dive" and "Rolling Like a Ball," Pilates involves the whole body in the exercise, improving circulation, range of motion and coordination. You'll first learn proper spinal alignment and deep breathing. Then you'll move on to discover how your "core" (your midsection) is the foundation of all your movement-and how strengthening that foundation provides multiple benefits in exercise and everyday living.

Pilates is effective as an exercise method but also as a way to help you become more aware of your body alignment, posture and the way you use your muscles. The regimen emphasizes proper movement through each exercise rather than the number of reps or the weight being used. After a few workout sessions, you'll start to take notice of your shoulders, abs, hips and back in ways you never had before.

You'll even notice how and why to use the contours in your office chair to sit upright and strong. Many office chairs are designed with lumbar supports and pads to mold to the shape of your back side, and even the arms are typically set at a height that supports the body during the workday. But many people still slouch in their chairs all day long, which puts pressure on their back and leads to poor posture.

Pilates has been shown to help improve posture by strengthening and making you more aware of your lower back, abs and shoulders-the core muscles that support your torso. Once you feel the muscles in your back, abs and shoulders develop, you'll notice your natural stance becoming more upright and confident. You'll notice the difference when you sit properly, and you'll pay more attention to the ergonomics of your workspace. Pilates also enhances mental alertness and productivity.

Is Pilates right for you? Used alone, it probably won't be enough to accomplish your weight loss goal. To lose weight, you'll need to burn more calories and eat less food. But it will most definitely help you tone your muscles and develop a leaner, stronger physique and prepare you mentally for the challenge of getting in shape.

You can find an excellent Pilates-based matwork video through STOTT Conditioning. And if there is a Pilates studio in your area, you might try attending one-on-one sessions with a certified trainer. You'll get individual instruction and access to Pilates equipment-not to mention the right mood to make it a true mind/body experience. Who said exercising can't be intense and relaxing?

Shannon Entin is the publisher and editor of FitnessLink ( and co-author ofThe Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Health and Fitness(Macmillan). An ACE-certified (American Council on Exercise) fitness instructor, Shannon thrives on inspiring people to live healthier lifestyles.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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