5 Ways Pilates Changes Your Brain & Body

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When Clara and Joseph Pilates developed their eponymous practice in the 1920s, it was mainly used to help people rehabilitate from injuries. Today, some people use some Pilates tenets for physical therapy, but others strap themselves onto their reformers for a full-body workout. No matter your motivations for learning the practice, though, the way Pilates affects your brain is a good reason to spend more time on the mat.

A central idea of Pilates is that by strengthening your core (AKA, the muscles in your trunk that keep your body stable), you're better able to connect to the rest of your body and keep it safe. By paying close attention to limiting muscular imbalances (which develop from things like sitting at your computer all day), Pilates encourages you to pay attention to your body and the ways you move in the world.

"This non-judgmental noticing of habitual patterns and making small incremental changes" is central to Pilates practice, says choreographer and researcher Marianne Adams, MFA, co-founder of The Pilates Teacher Training Program at Appalachian University. Cultivating these abilities to notice your body and mind's tendencies without judging yourself helps you stay positive when the going gets tough, Adams tells Bustle.

By building your mental resilience, Pilates can impact your quality of life well beyond just strengthening your core muscles. The mental health benefits of Pilates link physical pain reduction with improving emotional wellness. This means that as you do boost your cardiovascular health and reduce back pain, you're also training yourself to breathe in ways that can reduce anxiety and depression. That 10-class Pilates pass that your cousin gave you for the holidays is suddenly looking like the gift that keeps on giving.

1. Pilates Can Help Reduce Depression And Anxiety

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In the fitness world, there's this odd mental health balance you often have to strike: It can feel impossible to work out when you're too depressed, even if you know working out can help ease your depression. The hard part is figuring out when you feel OK enough to start the process. Pilates can help with that. Even though it's challenging, it's not super high-intensity, and you can get in great Pilates workouts at home.

The research is also in your proverbial corner here. A 2018 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that Pilates decreases depression, anxiety, and fatigue, with dramatic changes in people's moods reported in several published studies analyzed by researchers. These studies also reported increased energy from Pilates practice, suggesting that your time on the mat can give you the boost you need to improve your overall mental well-being.

2. Pilates Can Boost Mindfulness

Even though yoga is the practice most often associated with increases in mindfulness, Pilates can also boost your awareness of self. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices found that integrating a regular Pilates practice into your routine can significantly boost your mindfulness and mental resilience. This can be especially helpful when you're going through a tough time at work or in life; because mindfulness is known to increase your ability to successfully overcome physical, emotional, and psychological challenges.

According to Adams, practicing Pilates facilitates an improvement in mindfulness because you have to concentrate hard to successfully navigate the movements. Pilates is largely about "paying attention and listening to our bodies," she says. "Our imagination often gives us images which provide clues as to how perform each exercise with precision. Listening to our intuition might tell us when to modify or when to push to increase our maximum capacity."

Tuning in to your body with that level of intensity can be a great step toward improving your mindfulness.

3. Pilates Can Help Reduce Chronic Pain

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For people living with chronic back pain, Pilates can be an excellent way to strengthen core muscles while being gentle with your body. A 2019 study published in the journal Clinical Biomechanics found that Pilates training was hugely effective at reducing the symptoms of low back pain. Participants found that they were able to complete more daily tasks with less pain after following an eight-week Pilates protocol. if you're looking for low-impact exercise with high-impact effects on reducing your pain levels, you may want to grab a Pilates mat and get going.

4. Pilates Can Help Improve Cardiovascular Health

It's tempting to associate cardio workouts with a lot of jumping, running, cycling, and red-faced group fitness instructors yelling at you to go faster. But Pilates can be useful for giving you all the cardio you need, without the high-impact strain on your body. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, Pilates may improve cardiovascular health by boosting your maximal oxygen uptake levels (AKA how well you can breathe) regardless of your current health status. In other words, if working out isn't your thing but you want to boost your heart health, Pilates may be your way in the proverbial door.

5. Pilates Can Boost Emotional Health Of Folks With Chronic Musculoskeletal Conditions

Pilates has been shown to play a role in chronic pain reduction, but the benefits aren't just physical. A 2019 study published in the journal Musculoskeletal Care found that a 12-week Pilates program reduced the pain of folks with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. The study also found that doing Pilates generally raised people's quality of life and ability to move through daily activities by increasing their mobility and energy levels.

Pilates is about way more than flexibility and core strength — the benefits of strengthening your body, Pilates-style, extend into the emotional realm, as well. Whether it's through the direct impact of reducing anxiety symptoms or indirectly through reducing your pain and therefore boosting your overall quality of life, Pilates is a great way to integrate the health of your body and your brain.

Studies Referenced:

Fleming, K.M. (2018) The effects of pilates on mental health outcomes: A meta-analysis of controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229917306118?via%3Dihub.

Caldwell, K. (2013) Pilates, mindfulness and somatic education. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25328542-pilates-mindfulness-and-somatic-education/.

Cardoso Alves, M. (2019) Effects of a pilates protocol in individuals with non-specific low back pain compared with healthy individuals: Clinical and electromyographic analysis. Clinical Biomechanics, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31895994-effects-of-a-pilates-protocol-in-individuals-with-non-specific-low-back-pain-compared-with-healthy-individuals-clinical-and-electromyographic-analysis/.

Fernández-Rodríguez, R. (2019) Pilates method improves cardiorespiratory fitness: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31652806-pilates-method-improves-cardiorespiratory-fitness-a-systematic-review-and-meta-analysis/.

Gaskell, L. (2019) A qualitative study of the experiences and perceptions of adults With chronic musculoskeletal conditions following a 12-week Pilates exercise programme. Musculoskeletal Care, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30402992-a-qualitative-study-of-the-experiences-and-perceptions-of-adults-with-chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions-following-a-12-week-pilates-exercise-programme/.

Experts:

Marianne Adams, MFA, Department of Theatre and Dance, Appalachian State University, co-founder, The Pilates Teacher Training Program