The Fascinating History Behind Pilates


The Fascinating History Behind Pilates

When you think of pilates, most people envision wealthy white ladies rolling around on a Lululemon mat. This is a common misconception. Pilates actually has quite an interesting backstory. It was initially developed in a prison hospital during World War One and has since become mainstream. Nowadays, millions do pilates because it’s so beneficial for the mind and body. If you are sceptical about the benefits of pilates or want to know the fascinating history, then read below. We will delve into the origins of the practice and why you need to incorporate it into your weekly routine.

What Is It?

For those who aren’t aware, pilates is an exercise method that focuses on strength, balance and flexibility. The majority of the moves use only your bodyweight however props like dumbbells, squishy balls, reformer machines and bands may also be involved. The practice is often compared to yoga however there are significant differences. Pilates workouts are more about feeling the burn, toning your muscles and improving posture. They are suitable for anyone regardless of ability level and often used for rehab. Research shows that pilates is one of the best workout regimes to do if you’re trying to reduce lower back pain. It’s a popular workout modality even for those who aren’t dealing with injuries. Elite athletes like Lebron James use the reformer and thousands of everyday people visit their local studio on a regular basis. How did this program become so popular? It’s all thanks to the man himself, Joseph Pilates.

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Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was a German man born in 1880. He had a rough childhood and was very prone to illness and injury. His fragility prompted him to learn everything he could about health and exercise. He made it his life’s mission to become fit, strong and less susceptible to illness. Unfortunately during World War One, Joseph was sent to a prisoner of war camp. It was there he pondered the movements of animals and began to come up with new ways to stretch and move. He devised his own unique exercise regime and taught it to the sick prisoners at the camp. Mr Pilates even got creative and fashioned exercise machines out of hospital beds and coils. This was one of the first iterations of the pilates reformer machine. The workouts were so effective that all of Joseph's patients returned to full health. Many of them were actually fitter leaving the camp than they were before. After the war ended, Joseph moved to New York City and opened up the first ever pilates studio with his wife Clara. The business was an immediate hit with the dancers in Manhattan and pilates been extremely popular ever since.

Joseph Pilates standing a mat looking at the camera

Modern Day Pilates

Pilates has gone from prison camp to world-wide phenomenon. If you Google “local pilates studio”, you will likely be bombarded with nearby options. A 2019 survey found that 8% of active Kiwi adults had done pilates in the previous seven days. The 2023 figures are likely to be significantly higher. The pilates and yoga industry is estimated to be worth over $11 billion just in the United States. It doesn’t look like the growth is going to stagnate anytime soon. If you’re looking for a career change, becoming an instructor could be extremely lucrative. While there are many iterations of pilates classes out there, they are all based around the exercises and methods Joseph devised in the early 20th century. It is incredible how his ideas have gone on to become such a global sensation.

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Benefits Of Doing It Often

As mentioned above, pilates is great for rehab. But it does so much more than that. If you want a straighter spine, stronger core and improved body awareness, you should definitely pepper some pilates into your weekly routine. These types of workouts will have you feeling more mobile and better able to balance. This is especially important if you find one side of your body is weaker than the other (which is pretty common). Since pilates is low impact and soft on your joints, you can do it on top of more vigorous forms of exercise like weightlifting and running. A class or two per week will neatly compliment your other training modalities. If access to studios is a barrier, try a Youtube class or online platform instead. You’ve got nothing to lose from giving it a go. In fact it might just be your new favourite activity.

a woman doing pilates at home on a mat black and white stock image


Joseph Pilates didn’t have any children but he did leave a lasting legacy. If he could see how much of an impact his methods have had over such a large number of people, he would likely be impressed. The popularity of the practice is evidence that Joseph’s ideas have plenty of merit. Pilates workouts can make you feel better mentally and physically. This is why so many people do it. Regardless of your exercise history, ability level or injury status, everyone has something to gain from trying a class. So what are you waiting for? Schedule a session for this week. Your future self will thank you later.