German-born fitness innovator Joseph H. Pilates (1881-1967) developed the Pilates exercise system in the 1920s. His interest in physical fitness stemmed from a determination to strengthen his own body and improve his health after a sickly childhood. With a background in yoga, Zen meditation, martial arts and other ancient fitness techniques plus some success as a gymnast, diver and boxer, Joseph Pilates devised a unique sequence of movements that worked the mind and muscle in harmony.
He fine-tuned his wellness regimen while interning in England during the First World War, claiming it helped him and his fellow internees resist an influenza epidemic. Working as an orderly at an infirmary, he engineered a way to rig springs on hospital beds to offer light resistance exercises to bedridden patients, and thus the seed for Pilates equipment was planted.
After the war, Joseph Pilates moved to New York and with his wife Claire Pilates, opened up a studio near the New York City Ballet in 1926. It wasn’t long before he drew a following with dancers who took to Pilates for its ability to create long, lean muscles and a strong, streamlined physique.
In 1945, Joseph Pilates published Return to Life Through Contrology, which described his philosophical approach to exercise. Soon, some of his students began opening studios of their own – some making subtle adaptations to the method – and word of Pilates slowly spread.
Pilates didn’t really hit the big time, however, until the 1990s. The mind-body fitness movement took off as baby boomers started seeking gentler paths to health and wellness. Ancient techniques such as yoga and tai chi enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and Pilates followed suit.
No longer that enigmatic workout on strange contraptions, Pilates’ reputation broke free from elitist studios and started popping up at neighborhood gyms. Hollywood celebrities and top athletes started singing its praise and the press picked up the story.
The Pilates “buzz” has taken on a life of its own and the world wide popularity has proven that is more than a just passing fitness trend. Joseph Pilates always claimed he was ahead of his time, and his legacy lives on beyond his wildest expectations.
More recently Pilates has been adopted by athletes, fitness enthusiasts and within the health rehabilitation sector. Pilates is suitable for all ages and levels of ability. Scientific research is beginning to provide evidence of its effectiveness on reducing pain, improving physical function, movement and well being.