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At iSelect, we want to help you make more informed choices, so we’ve put together this article giving you the run-down on the history and utility of Pilates, as well as some information on who it could potentially benefit.
Pilates is a physical fitness system composed of around 500 exercises drawn from a range of disciplines including yoga, calisthenics, and ballet1.
It is generally divided into two forms – mat-based Pilates and equipment-based Pilates. The former involves exercises performed on the floor using your own body weight and gravity as resistance. The latter employs pieces of specialised equipment that use loaded springs to create resistance.
Regardless of the its specific form, movements in Pilates are slow and focus on precision and form, rather than sheer number of repetitions.
Pilates has also been used as part of people’s alternative or complementary health care plans. Of the three main categories of Pilates identified by the Australia Government, two have a focus on treating musculoskeletal issues or otherwise addressing lack of performance2. This said, a 2015 meta-study commissioned by the Department of Health said that effects of Pilates as an alternative treatment for a number of clinical conditions are uncertain, acknowledging that individual results may vary.
Compared to other popular physical fitness systems (such as yoga and calisthenics), Pilates is a recent invention. Named after its founder and originator Joseph Pilates, the system was originally developed in the 1920’s. It belongs to a tradition of ‘corrective exercise’ that was focused on rehabilitation and injury prevention, exemplified by the title of his earliest book on the topic – Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education (1934)3.
Joseph Pilates is also responsible for introducing the concept of equipment-based Pilates, developing a suite of spring-loaded furniture to assist practitioners in isolating specific muscle groups3.
After his retirement in 1966 and death the year after, Pilates continued to be taught in its original form by Joseph Pilates’ own students4 – this would define the ‘classical style’ of Pilates. A competing style referred to as ‘modern (or contemporary) style’ Pilates purports to integrate more modern research in physical therapy and bio-mechanics into practice, resulting in a greater number and variation of exercises5.
Health benefits of Pilates include increased muscle strength and tone, enhanced muscular control, improved posture and greater physical coordination, offering value both in day to day life and in other sporting pursuits1. Focus is placed on developing flexibility, muscle control and balance rather than raw strength or cardiovascular fitness – though certain forms of Pilates can be aerobic1.
Both mat- and equipment-based Pilates have different focuses and aim to help practitioners achieve different benefits1. Mat-based Pilates aims to condition supporting muscles located deeper within the body, resulting in improved posture, balance, and coordination. Equipment-based Pilates can use weights such as dumbbells as part of the exercise, potentially providing more of a strength workout than would otherwise be achieved with mat-based exercises.
Originally, Pilates only saw wide use amongst dancers and athletes – helping the former develop flexibility and stability and the latter prevent and recover from injury3. In the decades since its introduction, its seen greater exposure as more people realise the value that it can offer. The use of body weight and resistance exercises mean that physical barriers to entry are low, and may be suitable for beginner athletes1.
Additionally, as the focus is on control and proper breathing, there are no strict fitness requirements for attending classes. However, despite its history as a recovery method, it’s vitally important that anyone considering Pilates after a musculoskeletal injury consult their doctor before starting to determine suitability.
While previously covered under the general treatment provision of the Private Health Insurance (Health Insurance Business) Rules, the Australian Government has moved to change how this rule applies to what it terms ‘natural therapies’. From 1 April 2019, there were changes to the way that natural therapies were covered by private health insurance, meaning that policyholders can no longer claim benefits for Pilates under a complying health insurance policy6. You can learn more here.
Note that this change does not extend to physiotherapy treatment delivered by an accredited physiotherapist that draws on exercises and practices from Pilates6. Policyholders will still be able to access non-physiotherapeutic Pilates however it must be paid for out of pocket.