Fact vs Myth: Is Pilates Good for Weight Loss?
by Carmen Suarez We have all been there – being asked by a student if Pilates is going to help them lose weight (or even asking ourselves if Pilates is going to help us lose weight). I remember how I waffled the first time a student asked me this question (call it novice’s nerves, but I was not sure what the right response was and I am not one for lying), and how she looked at my petite frame and took that as an answer. But I did not like that my lack of clarity was open to (mis)interpretation, so I have now rehearsed a somewhat simple but still nuanced answer that goes as follows:
Pilates can help you lose weight. As any physical activity, Pilates burns calories. How many calories you will burn will depend on factors such as your physiology (including body mass and muscle-to-fat ratio) and, crucially, the type and rhythm of the exercises. For a 150- pound woman with average body mass index, that can be 150-300 calories per hour for a standard Pilates session, but more aerobic Pilates sessions (relying on high intensity and faster pace) can go up to 500 calories per hour and come closer to the calorie count of running and cycling (weight-losing activities par excellence).
But the drive to burn more calories can come at a cost in terms of the balance of the sessions, the focus on technique, whole-body approach, the variety, the challenge and the fun of the sessions. All those are factors to consider when structuring a class that balances the essence of Pilates with what the client wants, especially as the client might need help in identifying what they actually want. That takes me to the question that I ask my clients when they ask me if Pilates is good for losing weight – why do they want to lose weight? Invariably the answers refer to feeling better, looking better and (in some cases) going down in dress size. Without over-elaborating on the fact that all those things are not necessarily directly and unequivocally related to body weight, I reassure them that Pilates can do all that (and more!).
Pilates will help you feel better, both physically and mentally. Pilates helps you tone your muscles, especially around your midsection – this shapes the body, making it seem leaner, which is what most people actually pursue when they refer to weight loss. Similarly, Pilates helps improve one’s posture which, on a purely aesthetic front (and beyond other benefits such a as improved circulation and breathing and less compressed organs) creates a trimmer appearance and radiates an attitude of confidence.
Pilates will also help you build strength, improve your balance, condition your core and increase flexibility, making you feel more physically empowered. Pilates will also contribute to alleviating aches and pains (most notably back pain) and, together with the improved body awareness that comes from regular Pilates practice, help to prevent injuries – this will increase your ability to exercise and hence to take up other activities that will compound the benefits of Pilates, including body weight and toning. And, as Joseph Pilates himself stated, Pilates is not only about the body but also about the mind and the spirit; the breathing patterns help to find mindfulness in movement and the exercises associated with Pilates can decrease stress hormones (like cortisol) and increase endorphins (the body's "feel good" chemicals). Pilates decreases anxiety and improves mental well-being, making your feel mentally better but also more willing and able to engage in (other) physical activity.
A somewhat long response (though admittedly, I talk quite fast, so it takes only 2-3 minutes to deliver!) that can be summarised as – yes, Pilates can help you lose weight but, once you realise the many benefits it has in your life and how it makes you feel and look better, the calories burned in the Pilates session will soon stop being the focus of why you continue practising.