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Pilates: A Core Conditioning Program

If you want to work your body to the core, try Pilates (pi-LAH-teez). First developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s as a therapeutic regimen for soldiers, the Pilates method has been performed by dancers, athletes and movie stars, among others, to release tension while gaining muscle strength, joint flexibility and energy.

Pilates benefits include:

  • Prevention of and relief from back pain and muscle tension

  • Increased muscle strength and joint flexibility

  • Improved mental focus and increased coordination

  • Better posture and balance

  • Firm, flat abs

Pilates basics

Pilates is a conditioning program that strengthens the muscles used in everyday actions such as walking, sitting, twisting, bending and lifting.

The primary aim of Pilates is to improve posture by strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the torso.

Because Pilates movements are slow and controlled, similar to yoga in some ways, they can easily be done at home or in class on a mat. The deep breathing part of the program helps reduce stress and calms the mind and body.

Focusing on the core

The abdominal and back muscles are often collectively referred to as the body's core. Pilates exercises strengthen this core by developing pelvic stability and abdominal control.

Exercise sessions are designed according to individual flexibility and strength limitations and can be done on a mat or with specialized Pilates equipment at the gym. You don't need special clothing or shoes. Most exercises -- there are hundreds to choose from -- involve bending, stretching and using your own body weight for resistance.

Pilates breathing exercise

This exercise links deep breathing with standing in a neutral position. It activates your core muscles as you learn to control breathing while maintaining good posture.

  • Stand with your arms relaxed at your sides; your ankles, hips and shoulders aligned; your shoulders relaxed; and your head neck lifting upward. Relax in this position.

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, expanding your rib cage. As you take this slow, deep breath, maintain your spine position with its natural curves. Keeping your shoulders still, move only your rib cage.

  • Exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth, drawing the front of your rib cage in and down. Mobilize your abdominal muscles by pulling in the navel, drawing it up toward the rib cage and squeeze your lower abdominal muscles by pulling in the navel, drawing it up toward the rib cage as you keep your shoulders still and relaxed. The beauty of this and other Pilates exercises is that you can do them anywhere, anytime to relieve physical and mental stress.