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10 Things You Should Know About Pilates

Starting with, ‘you're never too old to start.'

En español | Once an obscure exercise regimen practiced primarily by dancers and other athletes, Pilates has gone mainstream. You may have seen regular Pilates or Pilates-ballet and Pilates-yoga classes at your local community center. Or you may have heard about the "core-busting" workout involving machines with medieval-sounding names like "the Reformer." What is Pilates, and is it right for you? Here's what you need to know.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a series of controlled exercises that condition the body and mind. Its primary focus is the body's core — the abdominal, hip and back muscles. Most of the exercises are done in sets of five or 10, usually in a particular sequence.

Woman practicing pilates.

— Rob & Sas/Corbis

Can I take it up after age 50?

It's never too late to learn Pilates, even if you haven't exercised in a long time or have had hip or back surgery, says Boston-based trainer Marcia Casey. She explains that each exercise can be adapted to meet individual needs, such as an old injury. The majority of Casey's clients took up Pilates after turning 50 — some, decades after. As with any new activity, talk to a physician first, especially if you've had a recent injury, are experiencing radiating pain or numbness in one or more limbs, or have recurring pain. Be sure to tell your instructor about past injuries or neck, shoulder, hip or back problems.

How will it benefit me?

If you practice regularly, you should enjoy improved posture, better balance, a stronger core, increased overall physical awareness and decreased stress. Physical therapist Becky Kellogg, of Denver, uses Pilates with all of her clients. "I give the example of getting the groceries out of your car, while standing on an icy sidewalk and trying to find your house keys," she says. "If you maintain control and good body awareness, you're much less likely to fall down and get hurt."

If you're only doing a few repetitions of each exercise, how can Pilates make a difference?

While in general the goal is precision of movement, not maximizing reps, some of the exercises do require more repetitions: the Hundred, the first in the series, involves extending the legs out straight, keeping the head raised, and pumping your arms while inhaling for five counts and exhaling for five counts—till you reach 100. The Hundred gets circulation going through the combination of movement and breathing. (Note: Pilates is not a replacement for cardiovascular exercise.)

When will I see results?

If you practice two to three times a week, you should expect to see and feel changes in a month to six weeks.

I have back problems. Is Pilates safe?

Physiatrist Susan Sorosky, M.D., coauthor of a study examining the benefits of Pilates on lower-back pain, found that Pilates decreases pain and disability in those with chronic lower-back issues through its core strengthening and lumbar stabilization. She adds that Pilates' emphasis on proper breathing and focus should benefit people with most any type of chronic pain.

Do I need to buy expensive equipment?

If you train one-on-one with an instructor, you're likely to be on a Reformer, a platform that glides on a set of rails mounted to a rectangular frame and uses your body weight as resistance. In a group class you're more apt to practice mat Pilates on the floor. You may need to bring your own mat — one that is at least a half-inch thick is best. Be sure to wear clothing that allows you to move freely, yet isn't too baggy.

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