6 key health benefits of Pilates Key benefits of practicing Pilates and extra tips show you how to get the most out of Pilates. By Get Started Pilates from DK Publishing ©iStockphoto.com/ImagesbyTrista Pilates exercises combine strengthening with relaxation. They lighten the load on your spine and joints by correcting muscular imbalances due to bad posture or misuse of muscles; and also alleviate tension. You'll rediscover your body's natural movement patterns and experience six key benefits. 1. Alignment Proper alignment balances your skeleton so your muscles are held at their ideal length, without tension. If your body is constantly held in bad alignment, it places a great strain on your muscles, ligaments, and joints, which will reduce your body's ability to react to the force of gravity, resulting in aches and pains and inhibited movement. Pilates gives you an opportunity to learn to correct your misalignments and allow your muscles to work as efficiently as they should. As you exercise, always strive to correct your alignment because it will directly impact the effectiveness of your workout. Use a mirror where possible to check your alignment and develop your ability to observe how your body moves. Check that your feet are in line with your knees and hips, your shoulders are level, and your waist long. For floor exercises, use the mat as a guide. Work in the center and keep the distances between the sides of the mat and your body equal during the workout. Key benefits • The impact of gravity on your spine and joints will be reduced every day, whether you are moving or at rest. • The risk of strain or injury is lessened with good alignment, particularly with more challenging and dynamic exercises. • Improvements in your posture, how you carry yourself, and how you move every day result from awareness of body alignment. Extra tips • Hold the head centred at the top of the spine. • Keep the shoulders even and relaxed. • Be aware of how it feels to stand with the knees and ankles in line with the hips. 2. Strength Pilates is a wonderful body-conditioning program because you don't need any equipment in order to strengthen your body. You can simply use your own body weight to create resistance for your muscles and to tone up -- which truly does mean that your workout will be only as effective as the effort you put in to the exercises. Strength begins with a determination to achieve the best. Over time, you will see your muscles gaining tone and looking sculpted; you'll also feel much stronger and more energized. Pilates strengthens the whole body, targeting each muscle group evenly with a mixture of dynamic and static strength training. No body part is neglected. You also work on all planes of movement -- sitting, lying, standing. This means that the muscles are worked from many different directions, producing a uniform and very deep strength and tone, even without using heavy weights. Key benefits • You are less likely to suffer from muscular and joint aches and pains, or to injure yourself, because your balance and the way you carry yourself will improve. • You rev up your metabolism by building muscle, so that even when not exercising your stronger body burns more calories. • Strength leads to greater health: by committing to a Pilates way of life, you will lower your blood pressure and reduce your cholesterol levels. • Pilates builds strength from the inside out, from your deep core muscles, so that they support your body effectively in movement, and out to your limbs. • Reduced tension and strain in the body results from a strong core, which will also allow your muscles to be free to work with an intensity that will create great results. Extra tips • A strong core helps other muscles to work freely and effectively. • Pilates strength begins with a stable and strong centre. • Use the weight of the legs to create resistance and work the core abdominals. 3. Flexibility We all want to achieve a strong body, but there must be a balance between strength and flexibility, and Pilates is the perfect exercise regime to achieve this. Tight muscles hinder your mobility and can lead to tension, aches, and pain. Flexibility is essential for your overall fitness and vitality. It ensures a greater range of movement in your joints, and will in turn mean your joints remain healthy and fare better against normal wear and tear as they age. Pilates makes most use of dynamic, rather than static, stretching: This involves taking your body into and out of a stretch repeatedly, in a choreographed movement. It warms up the muscles so that they respond more effectively. As you progress through the exercises in this book, you should find your range of movement increasing and your flexibility improving. Key benefits • Your muscles are free from tension and your movement is unrestricted when you achieve good flexibility. • Your posture will improve, because you will be able to hold your muscles correctly. • Better blood circulation results from improved flexibility, because it helps the muscles align more effectively. Improved circulation also gives you a boost of energy. • Joints stay healthy as you age: They resist wear and tear better if they are flexible and move freely. Extra tips • You take your joints through their full range of motion, which lubricates the joints and creates suppleness and strength. • You stretch and strengthen your limbs, creating a long, lean silhouette—with practice, your muscles will elongate and release. • Pilates lengthens and mobilizes the spine, alleviating tension and muscle aches 4. Shape and tone For a lot of us, our muscle tone while at rest may be weak. Muscles respond quickly to regular exercise, so after a few weeks of Pilates you should notice visible muscle tone and see your body begin to evolve. For example, during an abdominal exercise, don't think only about engaging your centre or belly, but be aware of lengthening your limbs, lifting your buttocks, and connecting your shoulders. If you also combine exercise with proper diet to reduce body fat, you'll notice your muscle tone become even more defined. Key benefits • Develop more muscle definition through Pilates exercises. Sculpt your waist and shoulders, and tone your abdominals, arms, thighs, and your buttocks. • Change your body shape completely with regular practice of Pilates. With work, you should see a beautifully toned and lengthened body emerge. Extra tips • Create sculpted, strong arms without having to use weights. • The leg muscles are lengthened and firmed. • Abdominals are toned in every Pilates exercise, giving a smaller waist and flatter stomach. • The buttocks and thighs are strengthened and toned 5. Endurance Pilates builds endurance within individual exercises and also within workouts. Focus on improving your concentration to build strength for both -- endurance comes first from mental strength and therefore requires determination and persistence. Visualize your success and strength, and stay strong through challenging exercises. You should practice Pilates sequences without breaks, like a choreographed piece of movement. Initially, you may need to take breaks to perform a linked sequence of exercises. Your muscles will begin to tire after several repetitions, but stay focused and complete the set. Over time, work toward completing a sequence without pausing. Key benefits • Pilates builds stamina -- not only physical, but also mental. • Immense strength and tone in the body is developed in Pilates by using your own body weight. • Improved concentration results from focusing on completing each repetition, exercise, and sequence. Extra tips • The shoulder muscles work hard to support the weight of the arm through the move. • Use your breath and concentration to stay focused and stable even when your muscles start to burn -- scan your entire body to release any unnecessary tension. • Connect more deeply to your centre when you begin to tire. • Endurance exercises often challenge large muscle groups, such as the thighs and buttocks. 6. Stress Relief Stress is one of the biggest negative factors of modern life, affecting your physical and mental well-being just as much as disease does. Frequent exercise is one of the best remedies for stress and has many benefits. Pilates focuses on breathing -- a deep, mindful pattern of breathing that instantly enhances feelings of calm and release in the body and mind. We also work constantly on posture: a poised and lifted body, free from tension and pain, creates a calm mind. Key benefits • A sense of calm and well-being is encouraged by the relaxation of tense muscles during Pilates. • Pilates releases endorphins, which naturally cause the body and mind to feel more relaxed and positive. • Your sleep will improve with regular Pilates, which will greatly reduce any fatigue and stress. • You will feel energized and invigorated, because Pilates forces you to focus on the present moment and the movement you are performing, excluding all thought of your everyday preoccupations and stresses. Extra tips • Tension tends to linger in the neck and shoulders -- actively releasing tension in Pilates makes you feel less stressed. • Focus only on your body and the movement; clear your mind of any worries or stresses. How to release tension Lying on your mat: Before your workout, give in to gravity and consciously release the muscles of the entire body into the floor. Soften the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Feel your worries sink into the mat and leave them there. The Child's Pose is useful for releasing tension in the back after a challenging exercise. From lying on your front, push your bottom back onto the heels; keep a rounded back and engaged centre. Open the knees slightly wider than the hips, to allow the upper body to sink toward the floor. Extend the arms along the mat in front of the head. Inhale to stretch and release the lower back muscles; engage the centre more as you exhale. Excerpted from Get Started Pilates, copyright 2013 by Dorling Kindersley Limited. Used by permission of DK Publishing. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.