You may know Pilates as an exercise program that provides long, lean muscles and an especially strong core. The program uses 50 different exercises to increase muscle strength and endurance, as well as improve balance, flexibility and posture, according to previous research.
“Pilates has a positive effect on the health of most of the voluntary muscles [skeletal muscles you control] of the body, mostly the larger muscles,” says Vedant Vaksha, MD, a spine surgeon with Full Orthopedics in Long Island, New York. “Helps stretch and strengthen the muscles of the forearm, arm, neck and back, hips, thighs and legs.”
But it can also provide some other lesser-known benefits, and ones you might not notice when you look in the mirror. Here are seven health benefits associated with Pilates.
1. Better balance, strength and flexibility for seniors
Because there’s such an emphasis on core work, Pilates exercises can help improve the body’s balance, says Dr. Vaksha.
But that’s not all: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that Pilates improves dynamic balance, lower extremity strength, hip and lower back flexibility, and cardio endurance among adults over age 60.
A Pilates workout doesn’t have to be fancy either. Another systematic review and meta-analysis noted that Pilates is safe and accessible because the only equipment required is a mat on the floor.
2. Reduced risk of falling
Increased physical function can also help prevent falls, which are a common reason for trips to the emergency room for older adults each year, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Vaksha says Pilates works the arms, legs and core muscles, which include the neck and lower and upper back. “It gives flexibility and strength to our body, helping with our daily activities as well as recreational activities,” he says.
As a result of better balance, strength, flexibility and functionality, older adults can significantly reduce their risk of falling, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ultimately, this could help seniors live independently longer.
And while other workouts can do the same, some research shows that Pilates has the upper hand when it comes to this goal. A randomized controlled trial found that while any physical activity can improve both balance and strength, which can reduce the risk of falling, Pilates has a greater effect than a general fitness program.
3. Reduced risk of injury
Pilates helps build core muscles and stabilize the body, which can reduce the risk of injury, says Heather Milton, a certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health in New York.
This includes potentially reducing the risk of overuse injuries in athletes and active adults and children.
A study published in August 2017 in International Journal of Sports Medicine found that when recreational runners completed a six-week Pilates program, they saw improved functional movement (measured by deep squat, hurdle step and jump), which helped reduce the risk of running-related injuries, the researchers said.
Another small study published in February 2020 in Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, had eight teenagers complete an eight-week Pilates program. Participants increased their muscle mass and strength in their trunk and shoulders. The researchers concluded that this would not only improve performance, but likely help prevent future injuries.
4. Less lower back pain
Vaksha says she recommends regular practice of Pilates and yoga to patients who complain of back pain. “One of the most important benefits for preventing back pain is taking care of your core,” says Vaksha. This is where Pilates fits in: Building a strong and stable core is central to the practice of Pilates.
A systematic review found that practicing Pilates for 6 to 12 weeks helped reduce pain in the short term among patients with chronic low back pain. Researchers recommend two or three one-hour Pilates sessions per week to get the most benefit.
5. Eliminate stress and boost mood
For most people, low-intensity exercise, such as Pilates, helps reduce stress, Milton says.
And the research backs her up: According to one study involving 63 overweight or obese participants, completing one-hour Pilates sessions three times a week for eight weeks positively affected anxiety, depression and quality of life.
Part of this may be because Pilates requires you to focus on your body rather than whatever is going on in your head. Pilates is a mind-body exercise and requires a focus on breathing, posture and controlled movement, according to one study (PDF).
6. Increased brain power
Pilates has also been shown to have a positive effect on your mental acuity. A study involving 110 Spanish women over the age of 60 found that a three-month Pilates program improved verbal fluency and executive function, as measured by a test involving timed motor and visual tasks. The researchers also noted physical improvements, including better lower-body strength and functional flexibility. But it should be noted that they did not see any improvements in other measures of cognitive function (including language, attention and calculation, recall, orientation and registration) among the study participants.
The researchers note that their study focused on short-term results, and future research should examine the effect that long-term Pilates practice has on the brain.
7. Improved symptom management in people with Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease can cause movement problems, but Pilates can help. A review and meta-analysis found that Pilates helps patients with Parkinson’s disease improve their fitness, balance and functional autonomy, with benefits specifically for the lower body.
The researchers concluded that Pilates can be prescribed to treat people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease.
How long does it take to see benefits?
The answer to this question depends on the individual, what your starting point is, and what your goals are. For example, the previously mentioned systematic review of low back pain noted positive changes after logging 20 cumulative hours of Pilates. That’s 10 weeks of two one-hour sessions each week.
Milton estimates that you can generally expect to see benefits by the sixth to eighth week of doing Pilates twice a week.
If you want to do Pilates more often than that, go for it. You only risk overdoing it if your form is compromised. Milton says that as long as you use good technique and activate the right muscles, you should stay injury-free.