Stretch and tone

Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 12, 2000

Stretch and tone

An 80-year-old fitness approach makes a comeback in local gyms

by Sarah Heim

Imagine a workout where you leave your sweatbands and headphones at home, and leave your shoes at the door. For the millions of Americans who choose to workout at gyms every day, this probably doesn't sound too familiar. For the growing number of fitness-minded folks who have discovered the benefits of a more serene workout known as Pilates (pronounced pu-LAH-teez), the days of pumping iron in surround-sound at the gym are only fleeting memories. Now, they leave the gym relaxed, not over-stimulated.

"You should feel light and refreshed after a workout," said Tom McCook, the founder and director of Center of Balance fitness studio in Mountain View. "And you should feel more self-aware."

Exercise enthusiasts around the country are now choosing to pull out a mat rather than getting on a Stairmaster, and train using the Pilates-based exercise. The approach, developed by physical trainer Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, is making a comeback. It is an exercise regime focused on improving strength and flexibility without building bulk.

Pilates created five pieces of equipment with names like "The Reformer" and "The Cadillac," that look more like they belong in a medieval torture dungeon or Houdini's studio than in a gym.

The Reformer resembles a flat, narrow wooden bed with a series of adjustable springs and pulleys hanging from the "headboard" at one end. Both the hands and feet can grab onto these various hanging devices when doing upper and lower body resistance exercises.

Pilates designed more than 500 exercises that can be done using these pieces of equipment. The individual exercises center on the quality of movement rather than the quantity, and emphasize breathing patterns and mind/body integration.

McCook, who was an avid weightlifter for 15 years before becoming a Pilates convert, hasn't touched a weight for seven years. For him, Pilates offers more depth than straight weight training.

People are tired of the big muscle approach to working out, he said. "(The Method) is a much more efficient workout."

The mat-based exercises focus on the strengthening and lengthening of the body's core muscles.

"It's a safe (workout) and helps develop more physical balance," McCook said.

Exercises are done lying on the back, on the stomach, on the side, in the sitting position and in just about every position in between.

Repetitions of stretches are done on one muscle group at a time. For example, a series of repetitions may focus solely on elongating your spine and neck, while always keeping track of your breathing pattern.

Many of the stretches and movements resemble those done in yoga. The difference is that in yoga, you tend to hold a position, while in Pilates there is an emphasis on continuous, smooth movement like moving through water.

In fact, many swimmers use the workout to help build endurance and strength. McCook currently works with the Stanford Women's Swim Team three times a week and has trained Olympic swimmers like Jenny Thompson.

Although athletes and stars like Madonna and Vanessa Williams, who both do Pilates-based workouts, have helped increase the popularity of the exercises in recent years, dancers have been doing Pilates workouts for decades.

Tance Johnson, a Pilates instructor at the Dance Vision Studio in Palo Alto, was first introduced to it as a professional dancer in New York City.

"We were doing men's (exercise) techniques on a woman's body," Johnson said. "(The Pilates method) taught me to listen to my own body."

"I'm in my seventies now and I'm still dancing," she said. "(The exercises) have allowed me to keep moving and keep dancing. I do it every morning and that works for me."

The Dance Vision Studio, as well as the Midpeninsula YWCA and the Palo Alto Family YMCA, offer mat-only Pilates classes that range in size from four to 15 participants.

Instructors generally like to keep the numbers low, but Johnson did explain that it is "encouraging to others to do the exercises with other people around."

Along with Center of Balance, other larger gyms, like Reach Fitness Club in Los Altos, now own the equipment and offer Pilates instruction on both the mat and equipment, focusing on one-on-one or duet classes.

According to McCook, who took two private sessions each week for five years, one-on-one training is essential. Although Pilates equipment can be purchased for the home, McCook strongly recommends training under the guidance of a professional.

"(Pilates based exercise) is great preventative health care," McCook added.

At the same time, the exercises are also a natural rehabilitation method.

Carol Scribner began attending workouts at Center of Balance about a year ago to help correct muscle tightness and an aching lower back. She now attends classes once or twice a week. "I feel improvement and I feel stronger physically," she said.

A number of participants learn about Pilates through referrals from chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons, said James Ward, the director of personal training at Reach Fitness Center. "Our classes are very, very popular."

He also added that Pilates-based exercies are not so much correctional, as they are a way for people with physical limitations to keep up their exercise routines.

"People do Pilates for building and repair," Dance Vision's Johnson said. "They come with knee and back problems and stress problems. (Pilates) allows you to relax and exercise at the same time."

Whether male or female, young or old, athletic or just looking to tone up over the winter months, Pilates offers an alternative way to synchronize your mind and body and leave you feeling healthier and happier.

"(Pilates) is a much more refined form of exercise," McCook said. "It's an art form as well." 

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