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Pilates Fights Depression

Most people start doing Pilates because they want to shrink their waistline or recover from injury, but the benefits of Pilates go far beyond flat abs and strong muscles. I’ve observed the transformational effects of Pilates not only from my own practice of more than a decade, but in my clients as well.

Sometimes as instructors, it’s hard to explain the benefits of what we see and justify it with any tangible evidence. It’s always anecdotal.

It always feels a bit snake-oil-salesman-y.

The physical effects speak for themselves – defined waistlines, weight loss, muscle tone – but some of the benefits are a bit more elusive.

It’s hard to qualify the increased productivity of your lunchtime client who pops into the studio in the middle of his work day or validate the lessened anxiety levels of the busy mom who sneaks away for her biweekly Pilates sessions. Yet these are are all hallmark experiences of long-term clients. There is a reason they keep coming back besides the physical strength (and of course, my good company!).

The Study

Finally my days of defending the mental benefits of Pilates solely with hearsay evidence are coming to an end. I came across a research study that actually looked into the mental benefits of Pilates. This particular study involved depressed women at a residential battered women’s center who did 30-45 minutes of Pilates, 3 days a week in a group class setting over a 12 week period.

The researchers measured levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter well-known for its mood-boosting effects, before the women began Pilates and once again after the 12 weeks were complete. In addition to serotonin, they measured depression levels (by a 21 question survey called Beck Depression Inventory commonly used in research and clinical settings), blood pressure, flexibility, endurance, and strength (via a tool called a dynamometer) before and after the intervention.

Lo and behold, the change in attitude from before and after a Pilates session that my clients have raved about was also experienced by the study participants.

Pilates Fights Depression

After 12 weeks of regular Pilates classes, the women had a significant increase in serotonin and 34% drop in severity of depression. That level of improvement rivals the effects of some SSRIs, a class of anti-depressant medications that target serotonin’s action in the brain.

Pilates very literally boosts your mood, but don’t take my word for it:

[T]he monoamines in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, have an improved transmission rate when exercising occurs. This is beneficial for those depressed because such chemicals in the brain directly affect on mood.” – Hassan

Other Physical Benefits of Pilates

It probably goes without saying, but the womens’ muscular endurance was significantly improved (by 38%), including abdominal muscle endurance. Their flexibility increased 48% and the participants boosted overall strength of their abdominal, back, and leg muscles.

Last but not least, blood pressure was significantly reduced.

Literally every parameter that they measured improved, significantly. (That’s research speak for more than a little bit and reassurance that the effects weren’t just do to coincidence.)

I’ve written before about how the chest opening positioning in many Pilates exercises, which mimics Power Posing, has the ability to lower stress levels and boost self confidence. Now we can add “Pilates fights depression” to the list of benefits.

So who’s ready to hit the mat and do some “hundreds”?

Do you notice a change in mood or stress levels from Pilates? If so, tell me about it in the comments below.

Until next week,
Lily

If you want to read the study yourself: Hassan EA, Amin MA. Pilates Exercises Influence on the Serotonin Hormone, Some Physical Variables and the Depression Degree in Battered Women. World Journal of Sport Sciences. 2011. 5 (2): 89-100.

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

24 Comments

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  1. That is great news. It makes me want to pull out my pilates DVD and do it more often. I know exercise in general makes me feel better.

    • Absolutely, Beth. Now we have another reason to love Pilates!

  2. I’m not surprised at all, but this is great news! I always leave a Pilates class in a much better mood than I went in. It’s the only challenging workout that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been hit by a bus afterwards. Wish I would have taken one of your classes while you were in LA!

    • Yeah, I love how energized I feel after Pilates. It’s better than caffeine!

  3. I have religiously exercised as an adult, with the exception of pregnancy. While all of my pregnancies were considered high risk, I did Pilates all the way through my third pregnancy because I wanted to try to maintain my strength and flexibility. My blood pressure was well controlled (which is fine outside of pregnancy) and this pregnancy was smooth sailing. I guess I have Pilates to thank for that.

    • Wow, interesting Stacey! Thanks for sharing. Pilates is so great during pregnancy. I recommend it to all of my prenatal nutrition clients.

  4. As a stress+less coach and therapist, I love reading this! it’s so great to see studies that show how exercise benefits us mentally (not just physically!)

    • Yes Nicole! And I was so pleased to find a study specifically on Pilates.

  5. I have taken 3 or 4 pilates classes and whenever I do, I really enjoy it. I mostly exercise with Tracy Anderson DVDs which have some pilates-like moves. Great to know how good these exercises are for me.

    • It’s great that so many fitness enthusiasts incorporate Pilates moves into their workouts now. The focus on alignment and body awareness is so key to a challenging, effective, and also safe workout.

  6. Hi Lily,

    Can you give me some suggestion of various DVD’s suitable for a stay at home mother. I am past the beginners stage.

    Thank you,

    Laura

    • Hi Laura,
      In the past I’ve enjoyed Mari Winsor’s DVDs. She reinvents some of the classical Pilates exercises and has a great sense of humor. I also recommend searching Rebecca Leone’s vimeo channel for mat workouts.

  7. Woah lady- loved a post backed up with a study! I’m not feeling down at the moment, but my entrepreneurial lifestyle does lead to overwhelm and some major ups and downs. Still never tried Pilates but you sure make me want to! Thanks for the insight.

    • Sure thing, Leah! I always finish my Pilates workouts feeling more balanced, for lack of a better word. Hope you can try it out someday soon!

  8. This is a beautiful post. Movement is so essential to the overall wellness of the body.

  9. It probably goes without saying, but the womens’ muscular endurance was significantly improved (by 38%), including abdominal muscle endurance. Their flexibility increased 48% and the participants boosted overall strength of their abdominal, back, and leg muscles.

    By doing the Pilates machine or Pilates on a mat?

    • Mat Pilates.

      • What about pilates reformer, bed, chair?

        • The mental benefits of a Pilates session (Mat or apparatus) are many. Fighting dépression is one for sure. It Also relaxes the mind because You focus on the present moment. It boosts your concentration, It enhances your immune system. Etc….

  10. Do you have more information on the study, such as authors, publication etc…? I’m a Pilates instructor, dance teacher and PT so it would be great to be able to reference the actual literature when I’m teaching. Thanks!

    • Hi Carla,
      The full citation on the Pilates and depression study is listed at the bottom of the article. 🙂

  11. I have experienced anxiety and depression for years. A few years ago I gave Pilates a try and found that for the first few weeks I actually felt a bit depressed. My instructor said that it was probably all the toxins releasing (something like that) I continued on and soon felt amazing, aches and pains went and my mood was in good form too.

    My instructor moved and I got busy so I stopped going. I’ve finally found the time and a new place to get back into it and again (after a couple of years), but I’m noticing my moods change, feeling sensitive and anxious. I’m going to continue cause I know its just a phase and once I’m on the other side it will be more than worth it but have you heard of this before? Now that it’s happened twice I’m convinced its the Pilates and I also find my self sounding like a snake-oil-salesman or a preacher when I tell people how good Pilates is for the WHOLE body.

  12. I have exercised my entire life. I am going to be 60 years old. About 10 years ago I discovered Pilates and have been doing it ever since. I absolutely love the way I feel while I’m doing it and after as well. I have had a pretty difficult life. I had a kidney transplant 41 years ago. I had to have my hips and one knee replaced due to the steroid medication. I also had a brain aneurysm that ruptured in my sleep 3 years ago. Pilates has been my saving grace through many times that I thought I couldn’t exercise ever again. I encourage anyone and everyone to try this gentle and effective form of working out. It also does wonders for your mind and mood. A true blessing!!!

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