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Yoga, Pilates offer similar health benefits. What to know about both exercise options

Yoga and Pilates are excellent low-impact exercise options for anyone who wants to relieve stress and increase balance, flexibility and strength. Although advanced forms of yoga and Pilates can involve complicated positions, it is easy to get started with simple postures and breathing exercises.

Yoga, an ancient Indian practice dating back 5,000 years, combines physical poses with controlled breathing and meditation. The word “yoga” means to join or yoke together — in this case, joining body and mind. Various forms of yoga exist, from slow-paced Hatha yoga to sweat-inducing Bikram yoga, which is performed in a room heated to 105 degrees.

Pilates is a relatively young practice, conceived almost 100 years ago by Joseph Pilates. He designed his “contrology” method to develop strong core muscles in the abdomen and lower back by working muscles against the resistance of the body itself or a “Reformer” machine while concentrating on proper breathing.

Why yoga or Pilates?

Yoga and Pilates are similar in many ways:

  • Help relieve stress

  • Build physical strength

  • Improve balance

  • Promote better posture

  • Increase flexibility

  • Unite mind and body during exercise

Usually, neither yoga nor Pilates is considered an aerobic exercise. Moving slowly into position and holding that position does not get the heart and lungs pumping as much as running, biking and other fast-paced “aerobic” activities. However, some yoga and Pilates classes add aerobic exercise to give participants increased cardiovascular benefits, but with less emphasis on stress reduction.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week for healthy adults, plus two sessions of strength training. Yoga and Pilates usually fulfill the strength training recommendation without the need for weights or other special equipment.

As with any new form of exercise, check with a medical professional before starting yoga or Pilates. Although both forms of exercise can be gentle enough for beginners, they could aggravate existing conditions, such as a herniated disk or tendencies to develop blood clots. Poses should challenge the participant physically, but should not be painful.

When selecting a yoga or Pilates class, look for an instructor who has completed comprehensive training. Ask about how advanced a particular class is and whether the instructor is willing and able to tailor exercises to individual abilities. For beginners, learning in person with an instructor, instead of from a book or video, is helpful because the instructor can give feedback on proper positioning. Correct form is essential for reaping the most rewards and preventing injury.

Most yoga and Pilates exercises require only a floor mat, except when Pilates includes instruction using a Reformer resistance machine. Bringing a mat from home is both convenient and hygienic, as most people practice barefoot, despite specially marketed shoes and socks being available.

Practice safely

As with any sport or activity, follow general guidelines for safe and successful workouts:

  • Wear comfortable clothes that allow a full range-of-motion and not require adjustment while moving from one pose to another.

  • Eat a light snack before exercising. Wait several hours after a full meal.

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Ask questions of the instructor, if needed, but don’t interrupt the concentration of others by holding conversations with classmates.

  • Dedicate a small space at home to practice so that it’s easy to make yoga or Pilates part of the daily routine.

Many decades ago, Joseph Pilates summed up the benefits of his new form of exercise by saying it is “designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play and in the way you work.” The same holds true for yoga. Try Pilates or yoga— or both — and reap the daily health benefits.

Barbara H. Cole, MS, CRNP, is a nurse practitioner with Penn State Health Medical Group in State College.