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Pilates workout alone is not enough
Why Pilates exercise is no substitute for aerobics

woman using the Pilates Reformer
The Pilates Reformer, made up of various cables, pulleys, springs, and sliding boards, was originally a rehab device.
Pilates exercise offers an unusually multidimensional workout, combining the benefits of strength training, stretching, and balancing. However, a November 2005 study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise has debunked claims that it also boosts cardiovascular fitness. Researchers monitored the heart rates and oxygen consumption—standard measures of aerobic exertion—of 15 healthy young women as they performed a beginner, then an advanced, Pilates mat routine. While the women's perceived exertion was relatively high (probably an indicator of how hard their muscles were working), their aerobic response stayed below the level required to glean a cardiovascular benefit. That makes Pilates a complement to—but not a substitute for—aerobic exercise.

Pilates works the core (abdominal and back) muscles using your own weight as resistance. The movements are designed both to stretch the muscles, resulting in enhanced flexibility, and to strengthen them, resulting in a more stable midsection. This can improve balance and posture, which depend in part on core strength. Pilates is sometimes done with special equipment, including a contraption called a Reformer. But it's also practiced on the floor, using just a mat. Like yoga and tai chi, Pilates puts minimal impact on the joints, making it particularly suitable for older exercisers. Pilates also shares those practices' mind-body component: It emphasizes deep breathing and body awareness, and the small, precise movements require substantial mental focus.

Most aerobic workouts, such as walking or jogging, offer few or none of those benefits. So Pilates plus aerobics creates a fairly complete exercise regimen, usually without the need for separate stretching and balancing sessions.

Pilates group mat sessions run about $10 to $20 per class; one-on-one instruction, $50 to $100 per hour or more. The Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit professional association, provides referrals to instructors nationwide by phone at 866-573-4945. Or check with your gym or a private studio in your area. You can also learn on your own with one of the numerous Pilates videos now available. (You can find some choices at www.collagevideo.com.)

Add aerobics to your routine

Aerobic (or cardiovascular) fitness is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply the muscles with enough oxygen at times of exertion. If you're fit, you won't get too winded or fatigued when you sprint hard to catch a bus or climb stairs quickly. And being aerobically fit is a well-documented key to good health and living well. For example, in August 2005, an impressive eight-year-long study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that aerobic exercise is crucial as you age to not only help you keep active but also to maintain your energy level.

It shouldn't be hard to squeeze some aerobics into your weekly workout. That's because significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness can be gained by relatively short, vigorous workouts. To boost aerobic fitness, aim for 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise most days of the week. But remember: Intensity is relative. For some beginning exercisers, even a slow walking pace may seem vigorous; for most people, fast walking provides sufficient exertion.

Other activities to try include:

Interval training. This type of workout involves alternating bursts of intense activity with periods of a more relaxed pace. Doing so prevents lactic acid, a waste product of muscular activity, from reaching levels that make exercise painful and exhausting.

Low-impact options:

Walking on hilly terrain, using weights to increase the challenge.

Using an exercise machine. Use controls to increase the intensity of your workout as you become more fit.

Doing low-impact aerobic dance or step aerobics, usually in time to music.

For more information about interval training, see our report (available to subscribers), as well as our reports on exercise bikes and treadmills. Also see our free body-mass index calculator and report on Hoodia.

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