Did you know that modern Pilates is a mind-body exercise approach requiring core stability, strength, flexibility, muscle control, posture and breathing (Wells, Kolt & Bialocerkowski 2012)? Although Pilates has been with us for about 100 years, many studies of the method have not used the highest research standards. This is likely because Pilates is a complementary, natural therapy for which research funding is limited. While larger or more long-term randomized controlled trials are needed, a growing number of peer-reviewed studies are providing insight into the method’s numerous health benefits. Shirley Archer, JD, MA, IDEA contributing editor, best-selling author, speaker and expert on mind-body fitness methods, explains some of these benefits.
Pilates Builds Muscular Strength and Endurance
Multiple studies confirm that, when practiced over time, Pilates develops core muscular strength and endurance. Investigators found that healthy women who did Pilates mat exercise three times per week for 5 weeks saw improvements in abdominal muscle endurance; young, healthy adults who practiced three times per week for 8 weeks gained abdominal and lower-back muscle endurance; and adults ages 25–65 built abdominal and upper-body muscle endurance with 12 weeks of training, twice a week (Archer 2014).
In 2015, Brazilian researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial with 32 adults, ages 62–64, who did two Pilates training sessions per week for 12 weeks. The study showed that equipment-based Pilates is effective progressive resistance training for building lower-limb strength (Oliveira, Oliveira & Pires-Oliveira 2015).
Pilates Increases Mobility and Flexibility
Numerous studies show that Pilates training improves flexibility in the hamstrings, shoulders, and upper and lower back among healthy adults (Archer 2014). One study involving older women compared static stretching with Pilates training (1 hour twice a week for 3 months) and found that Pilates participants saw greater improvements in flexibility (Oliveira, Oliveira & Pires-Oliveira 2016).
Pilates Enhances Posture
The Pilates method is widely recognized for its effectiveness in improving postural alignment, but few randomized controlled studies have been conducted. A 2013 study with 74 healthy women (ages 19–51) found that those who did 1-hour Pilates mat sessions twice a week for 6 months significantly improved frontal alignment of the shoulders and sagittal alignment of the head and pelvis (Cruz-Ferreira et al. 2013). Ideal alignment is associated with pain-free movement. The effectiveness of Pilates exercises in improving alignment may be a key to its role in pain relief.
Pilates for Older Adults
Studies show that Pilates improves balance for older adults and helps prevent falls. In a study of 30 older adults who participated in a combination of mat and equipment-based Pilates exercises for an hour 2 days per week for 5 weeks, subjects made improvements in dynamic balance, posture and strength—and gains persisted 1 year later (Bird & Fell 2014). A 2018 study of 55 men and women found that those who participated in group reformer classes once a week for 10 weeks significantly improved static and dynamic balance, functional mobility, balance self-efficacy, and lower-extremity active range of motion (Roller et al. 2018).
Archer, S. 2014. Science and the Pilates method. IDEA Fitness Journal, 11 (2), 74–77.
Bird, M.L., & Fell, J. 2014. Positive long-term effects of Pilates exercise on the age-related decline in balance and strength in older, community-dwelling men and women. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 22 (3), 342–47.
Cruz-Ferreira, A., et al. 2013. Does Pilates-based exercise improve postural alignment in adult women? Women & Health, 53 (6), 597–611.
Oliveira, L.C., Oliveira, R.G., & Pires-Oliveira, D.A. 2015. Effects of Pilates on muscle strength, postural balance and quality of life of older adults: A randomized, controlled, clinical trial. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27 (3).
Oliveira, L.C., Oliveira, R.G., & Pires-Oliveira, D.A. 2016. Comparison between static stretching and the Pilates method on the flexibility of older women. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 20 (4), 800–06.
Roller, M., et al. 2018. Pilates reformer exercises for fall risk reduction in older adults: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 22 (4), 983–98.
Wells, C., Kolt, G.S., & Bialocerkowski, A. 2012. Defining Pilates exercise: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 20, 253–62.