We’ve said it once, and we will say it again: Physical exercise is important for our overall health. It helps reduce the risk of chronic disease, aids in injury prevention, and helps manage stress and cortisol levels. Yet, when we think of physical exercise we tend to think of very intense workouts that involve jumping, running, or lifting heavy weights. Especially if our goal is to lose weight. And although high-intensity workouts do help with weight loss and building muscle, we don’t always have the time, energy, or comfort level to do these types of workouts.
What if you need something easier? What if you want to exercise but your joints hurt with high-impact exercise? What if you want to start exercising to control your blood sugar, but you have never exercised before and don’t know where to start? If you answered “yes” to most of those questions, then it sounds like Pilates might be perfect for you.
Because of its focus on resistance training, Pilates has been shown to reduce insulin levels and improve your body’s response to insulin.1 If your goal is to improve your blood sugar and lose weight, then you are just one mat away (literally) from making these goals a reality.
What Is Pilates?
Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise. It is built on a foundation of principles that helps you strengthen your own foundation: a foundation of core stability, strength, and postural alignment. Pilates uses a combination of resistance training and breathwork to help you gain more stability in your entire body, all while strengthening your abdomen, lower body, and upper body muscles.
The resistance part of pilates comes from using bands, body weight, or a reformer machine (think of a sled with resistance bands attached to it). Pilates has also been used for many years as a rehabilitation tool for spine-related injuries and chronic pain. So, if you are limited in your exercise because of joint pain or chronic injuries, then Pilates is safe for you to try and can even help reduce your pain.
The Six Principles of Pilates
Many people confuse Pilates with other types of mat-based exercise like yoga, however, Pilates is based upon six very specific principles that make it unique. These six principles are:
- Centering: All movements in a Pilates workout start from your core (aka your “center” or “powerhouse”). This includes your abdomen, upper back, lower back, hips/butt muscles, and inner thigh muscles. Being able to generate strength from your core allows you to do more challenging full-body exercises safely and correctly.
- Concentration: This requires focusing on your entire body throughout each movement. For example, a bridge exercise is not just about lifting your hips off of the ground. A bridge incorporates deep core activation, glute activation, grounding through your feet, and maintaining scapular engagement so that your entire spine and extremities are supported. In Pilates, exercise is more about quality than quantity.
- Control: This is exactly what you think - having control. Pilates is all about YOU having control of your body while performing each movement mindfully and with precision.
- Precision: Again, this is about quality over quantity. In Pilates, it doesn’t matter if you can do 100 push-ups or 100 sit-ups because your last 80 push-ups may have poor form. What’s more important is doing 10 perfect and controlled sit-ups using the appropriate muscles for each repetition.
- Breath: Breathing improves core stability. This involves breathing out during the working portion of the exercise, and breathing in as you return to the starting position. You will notice that your abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and butt/back muscles all work in conjunction with your diaphragm to create a strong and stable center.
- Flow: putting it all together. Doing a single pose with control and precision is the first step. The next step is building endurance and maintaining this control as you transition through various postures and positions. This is true for how we should move throughout our day as well!
Why Is Pilates Good For You?
Research demonstrates a reduction in blood glucose levels with Pilates workouts.1 While this can help improve metabolic health, there are also many other benefits that you can gain from a regular Pilates routine.
For the Body:
Increasing muscle and bone strength
The specific core-centered exercises using body weight or added resistance helps to increase the strength of your abdomen, lower body, upper body, hips, and spinal muscles. This is especially true as you use Pilates to create power from your core muscles.2
Enhances flexibility and mobility
Flexibility refers to the length at which your muscles can stretch, while mobility refers to the available range of motion at a joint. The mobility of a joint requires both muscle flexibility and strength. Good news - Pilates focuses on both flexibility and mobility as you use your core strength to move through large ranges of motion. And it has been shown to be better than static stretching alone.3
We have all been told to slouch less, sit up taller, and move with better posture. Pilates encourages you to find proper alignment of your head, neck, shoulder blades, lower back, and pelvis so that you learn how to move and strengthen specific postural muscles. You’ll find that you are sitting up taller naturally even after just 10 weeks of regular Pilates.4
Improves back pain
Your back (upper and lower) requires sufficient core strength and stability to hold you up all day long. Those with back pain are often found to have reduced deep abdominal strength. By focusing on breathing and activating the deep core muscles, you can learn to use your core as a natural brace for supporting your back. It is possible for your back pain to get better.
Boosts sports performance
Pilates is not just for people who need physical rehabilitation or have chronic pain, and it’s not easy. Athletes require strong core musculature and optimal flexibility and mobility to perform their sport with a reduced risk of injury. Research shows that Pilates improves speed, increases muscle mass, and reduces muscular imbalance for high-level athletes.5,6
Aids weight loss
We’ve all heard that muscle burns more calories at rest. This means that having more muscle mass increases your metabolic rate. With the increase in strength and muscle obtained in Pilates, adults have experienced an increase in their metabolism when engaging in a regular pilates routine helping them lose weight more effectively.
For the Mind
Improves quality of sleep
Pilates has been found to significantly improve sleep. One study found significant improvement in sleep quality for healthy middle-aged adults (especially those under 40) and for postpartum women in an 8-12 week Pilates program.7,8 Our bodies rest and recover while we sleep, so instilling quality sleep each night is what ensures that our bodies (and minds) are ready for the next day’s work.
Helps with stress management
The use of breathwork and focus on slow, controlled movement can help down-regulate our nervous system allowing for reduced tension, stress, and anxiety.9 This is important for reducing overall cortisol levels as well, which has a major impact on our overall health and weight management. Stress alone can increase blood sugar, so managing it is important.
Boosts your mood and motivation
Exercise of any kind helps to release endorphins and dopamine, which are chemicals in the body that boost our mood and decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. Even as little as a single, 30 minute session of Pilates per week can reduce general fatigue and increase positive moods.10
Increases cognitive function
Because Pilates requires you to pair your brain with your body, the use of this technique enhances cognitive function by increased blood flow to the brain, neural connections, and longevity of the neurons responsible for memory, focus, and learning.11
Is Pilates Good for Blood Sugar Management?
Why do we care about our blood sugar? The increased levels of insulin and glucose in our body is what leads to diabetes, unnecessary weight gain, depression, Alzheimers, and other chronic diseases. One of the best ways to regulate blood sugar is through exercise. During exercise, your body burns excess blood sugar and over time helps you become more responsive to insulin (meaning your body doesn’t need to produce an excessive amount).
Pilates is a great form of exercise to help reduce blood sugar. We know there are many benefits of resistance training and that increasing muscle mass can improve your metabolic health. This is because muscle is able to burn more calories and more sugar throughout the day, even when you are not exercising. As a form of resistance training, Pilates can help build lean muscle mass and aid in the management of blood sugar and insulin levels.1
Having strong muscles doesn’t mean you must lift heavy weights in a traditional gym setting (and it doesn’t mean you’ll get bulky, either). You can find the type of exercise that is right for you and build strong muscles through any kind of resistance training. The important part is consistency and engaging in enough resistance training each week to see results.
How to Do Pilates
From exercise beginners to high-level athletes,Pilates is for everyone. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to get started and you don’t need any Pilates experience to jump in. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. Set up your space
If you are planning to do Pilates at home, make sure you find a space large enough for a yoga mat and for you to comfortably move around. Finding a pilates studio is great for trying reformer-based exercises and having an instructor help you learn the proper alignments and techniques. Many studios offer a free or discounted introductory week of classes for you to try and learn some of the basics (which is an important part of Pilates).
2. Start with beginner exercises
You can attend a beginner's class in a studio or find videos of beginner Pilates workouts online. This is especially helpful as you become acquainted with the 6 different principles of Pilates, like how to breathe correctly and generate movement from your core muscles.
3. Get some equipment
Pilates is relatively inexpensive, especially if you are working out at home and don’t need a membership to a studio. Besides a yoga mat, other inexpensive equipment that can be helpful for increasing resistance includes:
- Resistance bands
- Small dumbbells
- A chair
- A small towel or slider (i.e. furniture slider)
- Ankle weights
- Stay consistent!
This is probably the most important aspect of any exercise routine, especially if your goal is to manage blood sugar levels, improve your health, and lose weight. Research shows that most of the benefits you get from Pilates happen when doing it at least 3 times per week for at least 8-12 weeks.7,8
Topics discussed in this article:
- Vasconcelos Gouveia S.S., Pertinni de Morais Gouveia G., Souza L.M., et al. (2021). The effect of pilates on metabolic control and oxidative stress of diabetics type 2 - A randomized controlled clinical trial. Journal of Bodywork Movement Therapies. 27: 60-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2021.01.004
- Kulkarni, Mrunal & Saini, Seema & Palekar, Tushar & Hamdulay, Nargis & Professor, D. (2020). Effects of PIlates on Core Muscle Strength and Endurance in Post 6 Months Delivered Women. 11: 136 - 151.
- Oliveira LC, Oliveira RG, Pires-Oliveira DA. (2016). Comparison between static stretching and the Pilates method on the flexibility of older women. Journal of Bodywork Movement Therapies. 20(4): 800-806. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.01.008
- Krawczky, Bruna & Mainenti, Míriam & Pacheco, Antonio. (2016). The impact of pilates exercises on the postural alignment of healthy adults. Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte. 22: 485-490. 10.1590/1517-869220162206153957.
- Finatto P, Silva ESD, Okamura AB, Almada BP, Storniolo JLL, et al. (2018) Correction: Pilates training improves 5-km run performance by changing metabolic cost and muscle activity in trained runners. PLOS ONE 13(4): e0196509. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196509.
- Park JH, Kim HJ, Choi DH, Park S, Hwang YY. (2020). Effects of 8-week Pilates training program on hamstring/quadriceps ratio and trunk strength in adolescent baseball players: a pilot case study. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 16(1): 88-95. DOI: 10.12965/jer.1938732.366.
- García-Soidán, J. L., Giraldez, V. A., Cachón Zagalaz, J., & Lara-Sánchez, A. J. (2014). Does pilates exercise increase physical activity, quality of life, latency, and sleep quantity in middle-aged people? Perceptual and motor skills, 119(3), 838–850. https://doi.org/10.2466/29.25.PMS.119c30z9.
- Ashrafinia, F., Mirmohammadali, M., Rajabi, H., Kazemnejad, A., Sadeghniiathaghighi, K., Amelvalizadeh, M., & Chen, H. (2014). The effects of Pilates exercise on sleep quality in postpartum women. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies, 18(2), 190–199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2013.09.007
- Ahmadi, H., & Mehravar, M. R. (2019). The effect of an eight-week Pilates exercise regimen on stress management and cortisol levels in sedentary women. Journal of Physical Activity and Hormones, 3(4), 37-52.
- Fleming, K. M., Campbell, M., & Herring, M. P. (2020). Acute effects of Pilates on mood states among young adult males. Complementary therapies in medicine, 49, 102313. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102313
- Memmedova, Konul. (2015). Impact of Pilates on Anxiety Attention, Motivation, Cognitive Function, and Achievement of Students: Structural Modeling. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 186: 544-548. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.009.