We talk a lot about the benefits of regular exercise but let's take a closer look at how effective the Pilates system is for specific goals. I consider myself fit and healthy but being a bit of a foodie I do over-indulge at times which keeps weight loss or at least weight management a continual endeavour of mine. Like so many of us the bulk of my work is done sitting at a desk in front of a computer - which means I am familiar with frequent spells of back pain and share the ultimate challenge of 'being active as much as possible'.
I have broad experience in different sports and exercise routines including the Pilates system thanks to the team at Mount Merrion Physio. In this article I am going to share with you some personal insights as to how Pilates fits into my daily health commitment when it comes to weight and stress management.
How much weight can I lose doing Pilates
I've read comments by people suggesting that Pilates is not an ‘intense’ enough exercise to lose weight. As is the case with most health topics it is not possible to be so definitive in a single statement. What works for me may or may not work as well for you and visa versa.
I should probably make the point here early on that choosing Pilates as your exercise of choice to lose weight is in most cases probably not the best decision. Why? Simply because there are many more efficient ways to accelerate fat loss if that is the primary goal.
However I have some interesting points for you to ponder, such as why a lower intensity exercise routine can be far better than a higher intensity exercise when we consider stress and cortisol levels and why a calorie may not be just a calorie.
It is certainly possible to lose weight by performing Pilates on a regular basis.
If you are unfit and not in your best shape then you are more likely to see greater weight loss results early on from Pilates compared to someone else in better shape.
It may also depend on what level you are at. Beginner level Pilates is less intensive and therefore your energy expenditure and calorie burn will be less than the more advanced levels.
Remember, it is even possible to lose weight without doing any exercise - but it is not easy. You have to be pretty mean and strict with yourself over what goes into your diet. Furthermore exercise is fun and has so many other benefits for you, so it is worth doing just because you can.
Something else to consider is body shape. Quite often people carrying some extra weight set out to lose those extra pounds but in fact end up maintaining the same weight but achieving a much improved body shape. A system such as Pilates does not lend itself to building bulky muscles but rather leaner and more flexible ones. By focusing on the entire body Pilates may improve your overall shape and you may look and feel generally 'tighter' all over. This may indeed give you the impression you have 'lost weight' because your clothes will fit better and you'll feel wonderful but in fact you may weigh the same on the scale.
It's not all about exercise
Losing or putting on weight is dependent on many different factors not just how much exercise you do. Other important considerations are your food choice and quantity, if you suffer from any food intolerances, as well as the efficiency of your metabolism. Something we have less control over are any genetic influences which is believed to potentially increase the risk of obesity in some cases.
You have no doubt heard the premise that weight gain or loss is all about balancing energy in vs energy out, in other words burning more fuel than you put into your body. Following this system you would carefully calculate how many calories you consume through your food and attempt to burn a higher number of calories through exercise.
There is a growing amount of interest, research and studies being voiced that contradict this theory. Bill Lagakos, a prominent nutritionist (Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry and Physiology) made this comment on twitter:
Calories are a tool —just not very accurate! Its like using a sledge hammer for final touches on a sculpture
One of the opposing theories is that a single calorie of carbohydrate is not equal to a single calorie of protein or fat and that different food types affect our metabolisms and fat storage mechanisms differently.
If you are interested in a much more thorough and fascinating article about this I encourage you to read the details and outcome of the following experiment by a young health activist and fitness trainer, Sam Feltham.
Eating twice the amount of recommended calories every day, a whopping 5'700+ calories daily, on a low carb and high fat diet over a 21 day period this chap only put on 1.3 kg of weight and lost 3 cm on his waist. Doesn't make much sense according to conventional wisdom does it.
Read the full story here on SmashTheFat
The stress and weight gain connection
Getting back to if and how Pilates can help you lose weight I wanted to explore in moderate depth how stress levels play a role in weight management and where Pilates can come in for consideration.
Here's a quick introduction to our basic stress response and what goes on in our bodies.
When you perceive a threat of some sort, be it a fright from an unexpected event or mounting pressure from a work commitment, an internal alarm system is set off triggered by your hypothalamus (small region of the brain) What this alarm does is prompt your adrenal glands to release surges of adrenaline and cortisol which are stress response hormones.
Adrenaline basically gives you an energy boost to deal with the perceived threat while cortisol increases glucose (sugars) in your bloodstream and your brains ability to use them.
Cortisol influences many of your bodily functions such as your immune system, circulation and metabolism. During a fight-or-flight situation (perceived threat) cortisol affects immune system responses as well as suppresses the digestive system and other processes that are deemed non-essential in assisting you deal with the threat.
This stress-response process is all good and well under normal conditions and we'd be most appreciative for it when we really do need to fight or flee. The problem arises when this stress-response is constantly being triggered causing overexposure to heightened levels of cortisol and other hormones, disturbing the normal functioning of many critical bodily functions.
Abdominal obesity is linked to chronically high cortisol levels as a result of constantly high stress levels. Stress factors take different forms for different people but common for everyone is the danger of ongoing stressors decreasing our ability to handle events that we may have considered not so stressful in the past.
To read more about our natural stress response visit the Mayo Clinic’s Stress Management section of their website.
So we know that chronic stress causes heightened levels of cortisol production in the body which can lead to hindered metabolism and weight gain. We also know that exercise is an excellent way to deal with and relieve stress.
But, moderate to high intensity exercise increases cortisol production
How many of us turn to a hard session in the gym or a hefty paced run around the park after work to combat the daily stresses? If chronic stress and the resulting high levels of cortisol is a problem and we turn to such demanding exercise routines for relief which are raising the cortisol levels even further - that sounds counter productive. In this situation, more gentle, lower intensity exercise such as walking, swimming, Pilates and Yoga may be more beneficial so as not to further stress an already stressed system.
In a journal article on PubMed Health research supports the view that higher intensity workouts provoke an increase in circulating cortisol levels but that lower intensity exercise does not and in certain conditions actually decreases the level.
Why good posture matters
While we're talking stress and weight loss I feel we must consider the backbone (literally) of our physical health - good posture.
Along with stress comes physical tension that we can carry about in our muscles and bodies. Poor posture, such as slumping shoulders and arched back, prevents our bodies from maintaining the correct form and shape for maintaining optimal physiological functioning. Poor rib cage and spinal positioning can result in impeded lung functioning (not breathing optimally) and less efficient oxygen metabolism. Your digestive system is also at risk of being negatively affected by poor posture. Both are important systems influencing both stress and weight management.
For more information about good posture please read - Posture Perfect
The Pilates system is based upon a complete body conditioning routine that will improve and maintain good posture as a matter of course.
Based on everything I have said above let me offer a few tips for my conclusion.
In answer to the question whether Pilates can help you lose weight - the answer is yes it can but is not the most efficient method for weight loss in most cases. It may however influence body shape and tone.
Also, when it is suggested that exercise can help relieve stress I believe one has to consider to what degree you and your body is already stressed, and tailor the exercise programme accordingly.
If you are relatively stress-free and you have excess weight you want to shift then my recommendation is to consider these two important factors:
- Your food choices; consider and do some more reading on the theory that a calorie is not simply just a calorie.
- Exercise; invest some time and effort in seeking out a reputable personal trainer to devise you a tailored exercise plan focused on time efficiency (avoiding long arduous routines) and intensity based on your current levels of fitness and goals. It's also important to find a style of routine that you will enjoy.
If you consider yourself to be under constant pressures, be them life, family and or work related, causing you ongoing worry, anxiety and stress, and if you want to shift some excess weight - then I'd recommend focusing on dealing with your stress first.
This is where a lower intensity exercise routine is going to be more suitable for you. A system such as Yoga or Pilates is ideal because of the added focus on breathing integrated with flowing movement - an almost meditative process is excellent for calming the nervous system.
When you can find a regular physical practice that focuses on relieving your stress I believe you will find the goal of weight management a whole lot simpler.
Take care and all the best for maintaining your optimal health.