Seven health benefits of Pilates

From relieving back pain to getting a flat stomach

Asian woman exercising at home following a fitness video online

Based on a mix of calisthenics, yoga and ballet, Pilates was originally designed to help people recover from injury, but millions of people now use it on a regular basis to help prevent back problems, strengthen their muscles, and improve their flexibility and posture. If you're keen to stay fit as you get older, here are seven good reasons why you should take it up too.

See also: Exercises to avoid midlife aches and pains

See also: Five best exercises for women in their 50s

1. Can help to ease back pain
If you want a stronger back, you need a strong core. Pilates has been shown to help stabilise the lower-back, alleviating stress and increasing mobility in the area. According to a study published in the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, people with chronic lower back pain who practiced Pilates for a month reported more relief than those who visited a medical specialist – what's more, they remained pain-free for 12 months after.

2. Strong abdominal muscles
If you want toned abs, you might want to stop doing sit-ups and try Pilates instead. Because the exercises focus on strengthening your core (i.e. both your abdominal muscles and back), they are one of the best ways to achieve a lean and toned tummy.

One study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that women who did 36 weeks of Pilates had much stronger abdominal muscles by the end. In fact, their rectus abdominis (the muscle that gives you a six-pack) increased by 21% on average.

3. Tones your muscles
Lifting weights isn't the only way to strengthen your muscles. The slow and deliberate movements of Pilates strengthen the entire body and are a good way to gradually build muscle strength in your arms and legs, as well as your core. It's also good for targeting muscle groups that can be hard to exercise, such as the abdominal obliques, which can otherwise become weak.

Training with weights tends to build short, bulky muscles, whereas Pilates elongates and strengthens the muscles, improving their flexibility and joint mobility. Not only does this result in a leaner look, it means you're less likely to suffer from injuries.

4. Good for your posture
Bad posture can lead to a variety of aches and pains – from a sore neck, to headaches and stomach ache. Pilates improves your posture by focusing on your body's alignment, ensuring that your head, hips, and feet are positioned in such a way as to allow your muscles to work effectively without putting excess strain on sensitive joints, such as your knees or hips. In addition, the slow and controlled movements used in Pilates put minimal impact on your joints.

5. Makes you more flexible
Having shortened muscles doesn't just limit your body's range of movement and make you feel stiff and achy, it can also increase your risk of injury. You might think that yoga is the best exercise for improving flexibility, but Pilates can be just as effective, if not more so. Unlike yoga which focuses on static stretches or poses, Pilates involves doing a range of gentle movements while stretching, further helping to lengthen muscles.

According to researchers in Brazil, women who were new to Pilates became 19.1 percent more flexible after performing just 20 training sessions.

6. Reduces stress
In Pilates, there is a great emphasis on breathing correctly. Becoming aware of your breath and of your body and concentrating on performing the correct, flowing movements, can become a form of meditation. Like yoga, Pilates can be a refreshing mind-body workout and many people find that it helps them to sleep better and improves their mood.

7. It's a convenient all-body workout
Pilates exercises several muscle groups at once in smooth, continuous movements, making it a highly efficient form of exercise. You don't need to invest in a gym membership or weights – all you need is a non-slip workout mat. While you can buy Pilates DVDs to do at home, it's best to go along to a few classes run by a trained professional. Because the movements are very precise, it's good to have someone check your posture and technique.