Pilates is a global phenomenon which has quickly captivated the hearts and minds of practitioners around the world. Courses in the Pilates Method are offered in high schools, YMCAs and specialized studios from Auckland to Zurich. The popularity of Pilates today is related to the benefits accrued through the practice of Pilates with practitioners lauding supposed benefits in both the physiological and psychological realms. As one of the most interesting and captivating exercise systems to reach the mainstream in recent times, Pilates is truly an international movement with certified instructors and practitioners all over the world.
With more than 12 million adherents across the globe and more than 14,000 certified instructors in the United States alone, the international popularity of the Pilates system speaks for itself (Powers 2005). Adherents of Pilates enthusiastically claim that Pilates can both promote mental health and physical wellbeing. Seeking to address the claim that Pilates directly promotes health and wellbeing, this essay asks the question, what is the relationship between Pilates and wellness?
This question is significant because the Pilates program is promoted as blending the physical with the mental and as a holistic exercise system which encourages total fusion between mind, body and spirit (Archer & Kauffman 2004). Beginning from the assumption that little scholarly research has been undertaken on the subject of Pilates and wellbeing, this essay seeks to fill a void in the growing literature on the Pilates method and the benefits associated with the practicing this unique exercise system.
This essay will begin with an introduction, followed by a comprehensive literature review of peer-reviewed scholarly studies on the Pilates phenomenon with an eye to studies which emphasize the particular benefits associated with the practice of the Pilates Method. Wellbeing is an essential aspect of this dissertation and the concept of wellbeing/wellness will also be defined and analyzed in depth. Extensive in scope, the literature review will be followed by a concise but increasingly significant section on methodology and the measurements used to determine the correlation between Pilates practice and wellbeing.
An overview of survey techniques and methodology used to explore this important issue will be followed a section on the results and a discussion of the findings. The focus here is on physical wellbeing and mind-body connections with an emphasis on the particular correlation between Pilates practice and wellbeing. This topic will provide the basis for our study and will be explored in depth.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is a “method of exercise and physical movement designed to stretch, strengthen and balance the body” (Pilates Method Alliance 2008). Practiced by faithful adherents around the world, the popularity of Pilates is a testament is unsurpassed by perhaps only yoga in international popularity. Pilates is a fitness system and its proper practice of involves intricate stretching, aware of breathing patterns and the proper alignment of the spine. Strength and flexibility, coupled with proper core balance and torso control, are at the heart of the Pilates Method.
Unique exercise equipment is used when practicing Pilates, and much of the equipment used today remains the same as when this system was created over eighty years ago by its founder, Joseph Pilates. Although criticized by some as a fad much like yoga, avid practitioners of the Pilates Method rave about its physical as well as mental benefits. According to the Pilates Method Alliance, “Pilates yields numerous benefits. Increased lung capacity and circulation through deep, healthy breathing is a primary focus”.
Accordingly, “Pilates also teaches balance and control of the body, and that capacity spills over into other areas of one’s life. ” (Pilates Method Alliance 2008). Based upon both a theoretical and philosophical tradition, Joseph Pilates devised a system of exercises designed to improve physical health and mental wellbeing. The “Pilates Principles” were created to condition the entire physical and spiritual body. Key components of the Pilates Method and principles include breathing, movement, concentration – concentrating on proper movement and coordinated breathing – , muscle control, and concentration.
Designed to build physical strength and mental resilience, Pilates is said to encourage total fusion between mind, body and spirit (Archer & Kauffman 2004; Pilates 1928). According to an insightful article in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies entitled, “Maximizing the Benefits of Pilates-inspired Exercise for Learning Functional Motor Skills”, the following diverse claims are made on the effectiveness of Pilates-inspired exercise:
- Enhanced physiological functioning
- Flexibility and range of motion
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Muscular power
- Cardiorespiratory Fitness
2. Enhanced psychological functioning
- Mood o Motivational state
- Attentional focus
- Enjoyment of life
- Energy and zest
3. Enhanced motor learning
- Core control
- Static and dynamic posture
- Intralimb and interlimb coordination
- Aesthetically pleasing movement form
- Body awareness
- Static and dynamic balance (Claudiaf et al 2000).
Of significance above are the diverse claims made by Pilates enthusiasts, including overall improvements in the physiological and psychological spheres. How does exercise effect wellbeing? What impact does exercise and physical activity have on wellness and wellbeing? For many years doctors have understood that there is a direct correlation between physical exercise and mental health. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, in the United States, “Every adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week” (Scully et al 1998). Why is physical activity encouraged by this important national body?
Because, as Irish researchers point out in their article entitled, “Physical Exercise and Psychological Well Being”, physical exercise can play an important role in the treatment as well as the prevention of a wide array of medical conditions and somatic complaints including “coronary heart disease, hypertension, a number of cancers, diabetes, and osteoporosis” (Scully et al 1998). While the physical benefits associated with exercise are well-documented, the psychological benefits of physical activity appear to be less studied. Undertaking an analysis of the effects of activity and exercise, Scully et al. found positive evidence to support the hypothesis that exercise is good for general mental health and wellness.
Accordingly, there is a “consistent link between exercise and anxiety reduction” (Scully et al 1998) and increased physical activity also has an important impact on the ability of individuals to deal with stress. In terms of depression, these researchers found that “physical exercise regimens will have a positive influence on depression, with the most powerful effects noted among clinical populations” (Scully et al 1998). In addition, they argue that aerobic (i. e. walking, jogging, stretching, light circuit training) exercise is the most effective form of exercise for combating depression. They also found that extended periods of aerobic training – meaning training that occurs over extended periods of time – will yield the most sustained and positive effects regarding depression. Accordingly: [T]he literature unequivocally supports the positive effects of exercise on anxiety, with short bursts of exercise appearing to be sufficient, and, in addition, the nature of the exercise does not appear to be crucial.
As with depression, the most positive effects are noted among those who adhere to programmes for several months (Scully et al 1998). Mood, body image and overall self-esteem were the final three psychological hindrances to overall wellness analyzed by Scully et al. in their groundbreaking article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. With respect to mood, it was determined that exercise, be it aerobic or anaerobic (short duration, high intensity exercises such as heavy weight training) does result in the elevation of one’s mood state.
A positive link between exercise, body image perception and self esteem was confirmed with “self-esteem improve(ment) with participation in physically activity, regardless of activity type” (Scully et al 1998, parentheses mine). Thus it is fair to say that any sort of physical activity can play an important role in increasing one’s sense of self esteem and wellbeing. Interestingly enough, Scully et al. found that in addition to the positive psychological effects of exercise in combating depression, anxiety, stress, mood, body image and overall self-esteem, exercise can also help women combat premenstrual syndrome (better known as PMS).
To sum up these exciting findings: Taken as a whole, the review posits that a range of exercise regimens may be able play a therapeutic role in relation to a number of psychological disorders… Whether that exercise be non-aerobic, aerobic, or anaerobic, of short, medium, or long term duration, competitive or non-competitive, team or individual, single or multi session is not always clear, but there are suggestions that different psychological conditions respond differentially to alternative exercise regimens (Scully et al 1998).
Due to the increased exposure of Pilates today, there is a vast amount of literature on this particular topic. Scholars, kinesiologists and avid Pilates participants have contributed to a vast array of information on the Pilates Method. Seeking to understand the impact of Pilates on psychological wellness, this review will begin by defining the term “wellness” and further analyze how wellness has been defined in the literature.
The social construction of wellbeing and wellness will be discussed with reference to measurement techniques available to measure a term which has often been difficult to both measure and define. The relationship between exercise and psychological wellness will then be explored by analyzing specific studies on the topic of wellbeing and physical fitness. As one of the earliest studies on Pilates and physical wellbeing, a group of researchers undertook an experimental observational study of 47 adults (45 women and 2 men).
Seeking to determine the effects of Pilates training on flexibility and body composition, the research team studied participants for a six month period. Although they found that Pilates may result in improved levels of flexibility, they were unable to determine its effects on body composition, health status and posture. Importantly, this study was one of the earliest observational studies of Pilates exercises from a purely physical perspective and the researchers admit that their study was hampered by a small sample size and the lack of a control group.
In spite of inconclusive results on the physical benefits of Pilates exercise, this observational study was important because as one of the earliest scholarly accounts of the Pilates method, it laid the groundwork for future observational study (Segal, Hein & Basford 2000). Chronic lower back pain is a common concern for Americans and for those under 45 years of age, lower back pain is the most common cause for frequent workplace absenteeism.
Although estimates vary, it is estimated that lower back pain afflicts up to 56% of the American population, amounting to billions of dollars per year in medical expenses and lost productivity at work. Accordingly, nearly half of all individuals who experience lower back pain will develop a chronic condition in their lifetime. Since Joseph Pilates initially devised his Pilates Method for rehabilitation purposes, a recent scholarly review was undertaken to determine the effects of Pilates practice on improving chronic lower back pain.
They discovered that “Pilates is more effective than regular abdominal curls in triggering the transverses abdominis contractions in healthy subjects” (LaTouche et al. 2007). In their summation, it was discerned that the application of the Pilates Method in treating chronic lower back pain can result in both “improving functions and reducing pain. ” (LaTouche et al. 2007). From a purely physical perspective, Pilates can thus have important physical benefits to sufferers of chronic back pain (LaTouche et al. 2007).
Seeking to understand the benefits of Pilates on physical and mental health, a comparative controlled study was conducted by four doctors with fifty college students. Acknowledging that research on the effective practice of Pilates on older participants yielded positive results for their overall wellbeing, Karen Caldwell and her research team decided to study the effects of a semester of Pilates training on the following factors: 1) perceived self-efficiency, 2) sleep quality and mood and finally, 3) strength and balance.
The researchers set out to complete one of the first studies on the effects of Pilates on younger participants, namely college age students. In fact, there has been little research on the effectiveness of Pilates and prior to 2007 only three published clinical trials dealt with the positive effects of Pilates on healthy adults (Caldwell et al. 2007). Focusing on college age young adults, these researchers discovered that “students who participated in Pilates classes experienced the largest improvements in self-regulatory self-efficacy, positive mood, and sleep quality over the course of a semester” (Caldwell et al.
2001). Additionally, however this study did not demonstrate positive tangible improvements in strength and balance measurements. Importantly though, this study demonstrated that Pilates can have a positive effect on psychological wellbeing and mental health (Caldwell et al. 2001). Seeking to fuse both the physical and the mental, researchers in the United Kingdom undertook a study aimed at understanding the physiological and psychological responses to a 12-week BodyBalance training programme.
According to the authors of this study, BodyBalance is a sixty minute choreographed routine available in the fitness trade and which represents a fusion of exercises from the diverse physical disciplines of “yoga, tai chi, Pilates and Feldenkrais” (Khan, Marlowa, Heada 2008). The Feldenkrais Method is similar to Pilates in that it is a physical fitness education regimen being promoted as improving both physical and mental health. It has become increasingly popular in North American fitness circles in recent years along with yoga and Pilates.
This was the first study of the BodyBalance Method – incorporating aspects of Pilates movement – which was subject to independent peer review and analysis. Conducting their research with a sample group of 40 participants (32 female and 8 male), the researchers found that “mind-body exercise formats can be used to improve strength, flexibility, and anthropometry around the trunk region” (Khan, Marlowa, Heada 2008). Additionally, BodyBalance and other similar programs including Pilates can aid in the reduction of anxiety, the alleviation of high blood pressure and help combat respiratory disorders.
Although this particular study analyzed specific exercises of the Pilates Method as part of a wider fitness program known as the BodyBalance training programme, the conclusions reached here promote the idea that mind-body exercises, such as those practiced in Pilates, can have positive ramifications for mental/psychological wellbeing (Khan, Marlowa, Heada 2008). How does Pilates add to wellness in ways that other exercises do not? In their article entitled, “Physical Exercise and Psychological Well Being”, Scully et al.
found that aerobic exercise was the most effective form of exercise for combating depression. While an overview of this article was already conducted under the heading Exercise and Psychological Wellness, the findings of these researchers pertains particularly well to the question asked at the beginning of this paragraph. The researchers of this study discovered that extended periods of aerobic training – meaning training that occurs over extended periods of time – yields the most sustained and positive effects with regards to depression.
Since Pilates is an exercise program which requires advanced levels of concentration and years of practice in order to master the intricate exercises put forth in the Pilates Method, this particular type of aerobic exercise is an excellent means to promote psychological wellness and wellbeing (Scully et al 1998). Due to the complexity of the Pilates program, which can take a lifetime to master, this particular exercise system requires practitioners to commit to a specialized regime for months and often times years.
Accordingly, “the literature unequivocally supports the positive effects of exercise on anxiety…As with depression, the most positive effects are noted among those who adhere to programmes for several months or longer” (Scully et al 1998). Future research on this subject could delve further into the questions surrounding how Pilates can add or enhance physical and psychological wellbeing in ways that other exercises cannot.
METHOD DISCUSSION AND CONCLUDING REMARKS
This research paper sought to examine the relationship between Pilates and wellbeing. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, in an article by Dr. Faith T. Fitzgerald, a healthy lifestyle is essential to the promotion of wellness and wellbeing (Fitzgerald 1994). Drawing from the archives of the World Health Organization, who in 1946, in response to the horrors inflicted by Nazi physicians, redefined the term health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. ” (Fitzgerald 1994). Furthermore, for this researcher, health and wellness are inextricably linked
She writes that a “well or healthy person is one who is not only physically whole and vigorous, but also happy and socially content” (Fitzgerald 1994) and uses the terms health and wellness interchangeably. Pilates, as an exercise program which fuses the physical with the mental, has been proven to have positive effects in both realms on practitioners. That is the magic of Pilates, it reinforces wellness in both the physical and mental realms, thus promoting total wellbeing for those who practice the Method.
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