“I don’t get the endorphin buzz from Pilates that I get from running” is a criticism, and even a barrier, to Pilates that I hear a lot as an instructor. I totally get it. I’m a runner and the two forms of exercise provide very different things. However, I argue that Pilates still gives you a high – there’s just a subtle difference between the two.
Firstly, does running actually give you a physical high? The evidence says yes. The high is a mix of chemicals, including endorphins and endocannabinoids, that seems to be a biological reward that kept our ancestors hunting and foraging. Kelly McGonigal PhD summarises the research here: https://ideas.ted.com/why-does-running-give-you-a-high-heres-the-science/
Although we might not be biologically primed to do Pilates for our very survival, Pilates is still movement and even gentler movement comes with built in neuro and muscular benefits. Caroline Williams in her book MOVE! The science of body over mind, explains that simply standing and moving give a boost for the mind and body. And in part it comes down to gravity. “Physiological changes happen when we put weight on our bones, and what that, in turn, does to our minds. We tend to think of bones as dry white sticks that hold up our insides, but in reality bone is a living tissue that is constantly built up and broken down to adjust to the stresses we put upon it. And our bones are in constant communication with our brains – what they talk about depends on how much we ask them to move while resisting the pull of gravity”.
In Pilates we use body weight resistance and gravity to ‘load our bones’ to help boost this chemical bone building process as well as strengthen our muscles. Strong muscles are linked to stronger self-esteem and confidence. In Williams’ book she explores the link between stress responses and the core muscles. Although this is an emerging science the evidence is pointing at the benefits of “oiling the psoas muscle by moving more and strengthening it along with the rest of the core to help build a healthier, more adaptable stress response”.
And in terms of the buzz…. “By focusing on breath, Pilates improves cardiorespiratory capacity. This stimulates feel-good hormones, oxygen flow, and blood circulation”. Full article here. The power of the breath to unlock a swathe of well-being benefits is a hot topic andabsolutely fundamental to Pilates. Most Pilates movements have a set breath pattern to help deepen the muscular work but Joseph Pilates was also a believer in the power of breath to cleanse the system and mind.
And finally there’s the social element too. Social connection is known to be fundamental to our happiness – moving together in a synchronised flow while having a giggle in class, all add up to a high that might not be endorphin related but has a well-being benefit of its own. No one ever regrets going for a run or getting on the mat!
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