Pilates for…..health?

March 6, 2012 — 5 Comments

Many books about Pilates list the “6 principles of Pilates”, a number of them have extended 6 to 8 or 9, but many teachers will be able to tell you that the ‘original’ principles of pilates are: Breath; Centre; Control; Concentration; Precision; and Flow[ing movement].
These 6 principles do not appear in any of Pilates’ own writing and, in fact, appear to originate in ‘The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning by Friedman & Eisen, and first published in 1980 (13 years after Pilates’ death).
The guiding principles of Pilates’ method, to be found in his 1945 book ‘Return to Life‘ are: Whole body health; Whole body commitment; and Breath; and have a very Pilates-esque no-nonsense simplicity to them. Why have 9 principles when 3 will get the message across?
Clearly things have changed in the years since Pilates’ death, we have a much better understanding of biomechanics, physiology and anatomy, along with entirely different ways of even considering human anatomy. (It should be said, too, that Pilates may not have been much concerned with those details – one of the highlights of the conversation between ‘Elders’ Ron Fletcher and Kathy Grant, available on DVD, is Fletcher’s reminiscence that, when asking Pilates what a particular exercise was for he received the gruff reply “It’s for the body”.) Despite these advances I can’t think of any compelling reasons to stray from his original 3 principles.

I’m all for asking for total commitment from our clients, especially if they have goals that they want to reach through Pilates, or expectations of what Pilates might do for them. This then begs the question (of me, at least): In teaching people Pilates, are we offering (the possibility of) whole body health?

Perhaps borrowing for the Pareto Principle, it seems to be widely accepted on fitness/exercise related internet resources that body composition is 80% determined by diet, meaning that exercise has a relatively limited effect on how fat we are. I’m not advocating a fixation on body fat, but all Pilates teachers must be aware that being overweight is highly likely to take an orthopaedic toll on an individual’s body. For example, the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Centre reports that ‘being only 10 pounds overweight increases the force on the knee by 30-60 pounds with each step.’ Joint problems are just one of many potential health issues related to being overweight or obese.

Having used it repeatedly in the paragraph above, I want to avoid repeating weight – I don’t think someone’s weight is as useful a measure of health as their body composition, how much fat they are storing. Hence how one’s clothes fit is a better indicator than a set of scales. It can be hugely challenging to address a client’s body composition, and requires that a relationship be established between teacher and client first of all (unless both are pretty thick-skinned). Nonetheless, if Pilates teachers (as fitness professionals, not alternative therapists), are to help clients towards whole body health I think we may have a responsibility to address such tricky topics. As you may have gathered if you’ve read earlier posts on this site, I lean quite strongly towards a particular way of eating – (in the interests of simplicity) low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat  – and, having read quite a lot on the subject, I’m happy to get into a conversation about nutrition with anyone these days (yes, maybe too happy, and more on that next time). The chances are that my nutrition views aren’t shared by all Pilates teachers, perhaps only a few, and I’m not arguing that we should all be preaching paleo eating to our clients. In the past I have had clients say to me “I know I need to lose some weight” and I’ve probably mumbled awkwardly and equivocated – now I think that, without getting into an epic conversation, I could have simply asked what they were doing, or planning to do, to accomplish the fat loss. I am not a nutritionist, but I can encourage clients to get help with shedding body fat, in the same way that I might encourage them to go to a physio or osteopath if that seems appropriate.

A lot of the clients that come to our studio list ‘weight loss’ as one of their goals. All other benefits aside, I don’t believe that Pilates is an effective means of achieving such a thing. Indeed, I think the evidence shows that eating is far more important to body composition than exercise. As fitness professionals I think we do have a responsibility to address nutrition (and maybe to mention that sleep quality and cortisol levels have a significant impact on our metabolism), even if that is no more than encouraging clients to seek professional help (or perhaps to read Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It“). I’d love to hear what any fellow Pilates professional (in fact, anyone who may be reading) thinks….


5 responses to Pilates for…..health?


    Hi, I have very much been enjoying reading parts of this blog. I am also a Pilates teacher. Please could you tell me where your studio is? I would love to have a few sessions if at all possible. Many thanks, Jessi

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Why go Primal? « paleolates - March 15, 2012

    […] Pilates definitely had a hugely transformative effect on me – it freed me from 18 months or so of chronic pain, and opened the door to the first real career that I’d ever wanted (and I met my wife through Pilates). It’s inspired me to learn, and allowed me the chance to be a part of running a thriving business. Probably because of my nature, Pilates also allowed me to have a somewhat entrenched view of ‘proper’, or worthwhile exercise, and a limited perspective on physical health. (Let’s be clear, these are my shortcomings. Please see my earlier post for more thoughts about Pilates and health). […]

  2. Pilates teachers know back pain best… « paleolates - March 20, 2012

    […] anecdote on that subject in his conversation with Kathy Grant (I referred to this DVD in a previous post) – Fletcher (a dancer at the time) explains that he went to see Pilates for help with a knee […]

  3. What should a Pilates teacher look like? « paleolates - May 23, 2012

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