Is Pilates more than an exercise trend? Here, we explore some of the benefits

When it comes to exercise, I’ve always been a yoga gal. I loved how quiet the practice was, and the way it inspired a sense of connection to body and mind. It was actually this connection that warned me something wasn’t quite right.

I had just got over my second bout of Covid, and was feeling out of sorts. I thought movement would be helpful, so I started a challenge that meant I exercised every day for a month. As I came to the end of a yoga session during this time, I found myself in tears. My joints were aching, I was exhausted, and even my trusty yoga couldn’t hold me in the way I needed.

After a frustrating battle with doctors to be truly heard, I ended up seeking help from a private rheumatologist. He confirmed the fatigue was likely to be Covid-related, but that the joint pain may be due to my (unknown to me) hypermobility.

“Start swimming and Pilates,” he advised. “What about yoga?” I enquired. He then explained that yoga isn’t always the best for those with hypermobility, as it can be easy to unintentionally injure yourself. Pilates, on the other hand, helps to strengthen joints.

I took his advice seriously, signing myself up for private Pilates lessons for six weeks, before joining a group class. Thankfully, the fatigue lifted early on in the process, so I had the energy I needed to give it my full attention, alongside regular swimming and walking.

Here are just a few of the unexpected changes I discovered on the mat:

Greater flexibility

I must admit, I wasn’t too sure what Pilates would involve before starting, and I didn’t realise how much it would help with flexibility. It also took about six months to really kick in. There was one class in particular where I felt myself folding into a position with more ease than before, and I sighed heavily. This is what it used to feel like – before Covid, before lockdowns, before everything tensed up.

The stretching that takes place in Pilates is gentle, and, with my newly diagnosed hypermobility, I get guidance from my teacher on how to stretch safely. This has made a drastic improvement to both my mobility and flexibility.

Feeling stronger

Now, I knew Pilates was all about strengthening the core, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my physical strength would improve. What I didn’t expect was the boost of confidence this would give me.

In a recent class, I held a position for longer than usual, and felt a wave of pride wash over me. I’m getting stronger. I’m building myself back up. And, somehow, this has made me feel capable of anything.

Finding community

Since joining the group Pilates class, I show up knowing I’m going to see some friendly faces. A few of us have been attending for a while now, and each class starts with a quick catch-up on how our weeks have been.

I don’t have friends who live locally, as adulthood scattered us across the country (and the globe in some cases). While I haven’t yet progressed to meeting my Pilates friends outside of class, there’s something really special about showing up, saying hello, and moving through a class, side by side.

Reduced joint pain

This was the reason I started Pilates and, I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure it would work. I had been told by doctors that going for a walk would fix my health issues, and that wasn’t the case. But what I needed was time. Time for the fatigue to lift, and time to find what worked for me.

It wasn’t just about exercising. It was about listening to myself, resting when I needed to, and moving in a way that supported me. As it turns out, Pilates did help with this. After about six months, when I noticed I had become more flexible, I also realised the pain had fizzled out.

It still flares up from time to time, when I’m especially tired or unwell (I have gone on to catch Covid a further two times). But I know how to handle it now, and I know Pilates helps me.

Increased mindfulness

As Pilates doesn’t have the same spiritual element yoga does, I wasn’t sure if I’d feel the same sense of mindfulness. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did. Both Pilates and yoga encourage you to be mindful of your movements, your breathing, and of how your body feels.

I find this follows you off the mat, too. Now I’m much more mindful of my posture, the way I sleep, and how skeletal misalignment can contribute to my pain.

Better self-awareness

This comes hand-in-hand with the mindfulness element. In Pilates, you have to be very aware of your body. The movements involved are often small, targeted, and, at times, intense. Bringing awareness to your body is a must to practise it safely, and to really feel the benefits.

Again, perhaps naively, I didn’t realise Pilates would be so focused on its movements, so this increase in self-awareness was a welcome surprise.

Improved sleep

The effect Pilates has on my sleep is something I’m only just recognising. My Pilates class falls on Thursday evenings, which also happens to be the last day of my working week. This means I’m often pretty sleepy when class wraps up, and it may just be the promise of a lie-in the next morning, but I sleep like a baby on Thursday nights.

Research on Pilates’ effect on sleep, such as a study in Frontiers in Neurology, suggests it can have a positive impact, though not necessarily for healthy individuals over the age of 40 or post-menopausal women. However, 2023 research in BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation does back up my personal findings, so I’m going to take my Pilates-fuelled Zs while I can.

I’ve been doing Pilates for a year now and I’m still discovering new things to enjoy. I haven’t abandoned yoga either. Now and then, usually on a slow Sunday, I’ll roll out my mat to appreciate some yin. My joints are in a better place, and I understand my body more, so yoga feels like something I can dip my toe back into.

When I compare myself to where I was a year ago, crying on my yoga mat, I can’t help but feel grateful. I’m grateful that I persisted with doctors, that I listened to my body, and found what works for me.

Pilates was never an exercise I considered, but now I know it’s not just exercise. It’s connection, strength, community, and so much more. My hope for you is that you find something that offers you the same – and who knows, maybe it will be Pilates.

Learn more about Pilates and find an instructor on the Therapy Directory.