Why is everyone obsessed with pilates, and what are the benefits?

Full body of concentrated people in activewear doing exercises on pilates equipment during workout in gym
Pilates is a mind-body exercise developed by Joseph Hubertus Pilates in the 1920s. (Getty Images)

Although the invention of pilates by German physical trainer Joseph Hubertus Pilates dates back to the 1920s, the mind-body exercise has reached new heights of popularity in recent years.

As people search for new ways to stay fit and healthy, pilates has emerged as a holistic way of exercise that combines breath awareness and spine alignment with deep core strength and flexibility.

The rise of pilates as a fitness trend has led to a boom in the industry, with new pilates schools and classes popping up everywhere, as well as dozens of pilates influencers popularising the terms ‘pilates girly’ and ‘pilates mum’ on social media.

But, while the vast majority of people who practise pilates are women, men are starting to pick it up too. On TikTok, male fitness influencers have started posting videos of themselves trying pilates and being shocked by how hard of a workout it actually is.

Pilates can be practised on a mat or with a reformer machine. The former is much more accessible and requires little equipment, other than a mat and, for some exercises, a pilates ring, pilates ball, resistance bands, and small weight bands.

a young european woman with blond hair is doing yoga with her small dog of the maltese breed
Pilates can be practised in a variety of ways, both at home or in a class, making it highly accessible. (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, reformer pilates is a more intense and dynamic form of pilates. The machine makes use of springs to create tension, and is designed to make you work harder.

Why is pilates so popular right now?

According to Victoria Repa, a certified pilates instructor, CEO and founder of health and wellness platform BetterMe, pilates is now one of the most popular workouts among her business’s more than 150 million users.

She tells Yahoo UK that there are several factors that she believes has contributed to the growing popularity of this specific exercise.

"First, there’s a shift in how people view workouts," Repa says. "It’s moving away from solely focusing on ‘quick slim’ or ‘muscle gain’, and towards a holistic approach to wellbeing.

"Thus, pilates perfectly aligns with this trend. Its focus on core strength, flexibility and body awareness resonates with those seeking a well-rounded fitness routine."

Pilates is also suitable for people of any fitness level and age, which makes it a highly accessible way to work out. There are a number of different variations aside from mat and reformer pilates - for example, there are more than 15 types of pilates workouts on the BetterMe platform, from wall pilates to core pilates to full-body HIIT pilates.

Celebrities have also jumped on the pilates bandwagon, further fuelling its popularity. Repa says: "Some celebrities work out on reformers, while others demonstrate pilates at home. Properly performed mat work exercises are as effective as machine-based pilates, making this powerful practise available to everyone."

Is pilates for everyone?

At the moment, pilates appears to be much more popular among women than men. This could be because advertisements and media often portray pilates as being practised by a majority female clientele.

But men have always benefited from pilates as well. In fact, it was used after World War I as a form of physical rehabilitation for wounded soldiers. A program developed by the Royal Danish Ballet Foundation also used pilates to help rehabilitate soldiers who were wounded in action in Afghanistan.

Repa adds: "Originally designed for rehabilitation, pilates has evolved into a comprehensive training method for both the body and mind. Its adaptability to various fitness levels and low-risk nature make it accessible to everyone."

How will practising pilates benefit me?

While some might think pilates is more suited to younger, more flexible people, it may surprise you to find that pilates can offer significant benefits no matter how old you are.

A study published in 2022 on middle-aged women found that those who participated in a 12-week pilates program saw significant improvements in weight, their metabolic rate, and functional fitness levels.

The results also suggested that pilates "can improve cardiorespiratory fitness irrespective of health status". Participants with chronic lower back pain also saw improvements in pain, flexibility and balance.

Mature woman balancing on reformer while doing roman splits during class in pilates studio
Practising pilates is for everyone, fitness experts say. (Getty Images)

"Both types of pilates (mat and apparatus) can also improve lower- and upper-limb strength, aerobic endurance, lower- and upper-limb flexibility, and agility in older women," the study’s authors concluded.

Repa adds that pilates "targets all major muscle groups while also addressing key areas prone to sagging, such as the arms, abdomen and buttocks".

"Pilates incorporates a combination of strength training and flexibility exercises, which can improve muscle tone, increase overall strength, and enhance body contouring."

She recommends practising pilates on a daily basis to fully reap the physical benefits of pilates - but this doesn’t mean committing to hour-long classes every single day.

"I firmly believe that even a short, 10-minute daily pilates routine can yield significant benefits," she says.

"It’s also important to remember that there are various types of pilates, each catering to diverse fitness goals and levels, so time is not the main indicator of results. Thus, committing just 10 to 15 minutes to pilates can be just as effective when approached with consistency and mindfulness."

However, a 2016 study found that practising pilates even once a week resulted in improved body awareness after just 10 weeks, with muscle mass, balance, flexibility, and core and abdominal strength increasing.

So if you want to start practising pilates once a week, you may see significant improvement to your physical and mental health in just a matter of weeks.

Watch: Everything this pilates instructor does before teaching a morning class

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