Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Fitness challenge: Pilates

Each week intrepid reporter Rachel Grunwell will try out a new form of exercise to bring you the lowdown.

Pilates is controlled exercise using resistance from machines or your body. Photo / Getty Images
Pilates is controlled exercise using resistance from machines or your body. Photo / Getty Images

What is it? Pilates promotes flexibility, strength, toning, balance and trunk stability to improve joint mobility. It is named after its founder Joseph Pilates, who believed physical and mental health are linked, so a balanced body means a balanced mind.

What's needed? Comfortable workout gear, a mat (gyms may provide these), drink bottle and socks (rather than gym shoes).

The experience: I'm at the Peak Pilates and Physiotherapy Centre in Newmarket, where I'm handed a leaflet which quotes Joseph Pilates saying, "after 10 sessions you'll feel better; after 20 sessions you'll look better; and after 30 sessions you'll have a new body". I quite like the idea of a "new body".

My instructor Gemma Monachino, who has the kind of body you could throw a tiny cocktail dress at, insists that "Pilates promises a lot and delivers". So I'm listening.

She tells me Pilates promotes longer and leaner muscles and can make me stronger, too, so I can run faster. It can also restore the natural alignment of the spine, give greater joint mobility, a flatter stomach and can even boost my respiratory and lymphatic systems - the secret is breathing right through the movements, it appears.

Breathing patterns, says Monachino, can have a strong influence on our health, particularly on stress levels: changing your breathing can change your health, she says.

I have a one-on-one lesson with Monachino, which is how everyone starts at Peak Pilates. This allows the instructor to check for any conditions that I might need help with, and tell me what exercises to do and what not to do, to help me develop that new body. "Pilates is for everyone but not every Pilates exercise suits everyone," she says. Fortunately, I don't have any injuries.

We start with warm-up exercises on the mat, then Monachino checks my posture. She gently shows me how to sit and stand properly (to avoid the classic Kiwi hunched shoulders and curved back). If I sit and stand right, it will take the tension out of my back, neck and body, she says.

Then much of the workout is on the so-called reformer machine, which gives the "Reformer Pilates" classes their name.

It's a pushing and pulling contraption with springs that can be adjusted according to how much resistance you want. One of Monachino's clients calls it "a moving bed", but - let me tell you - there's no resting going on here.

I do controlled movements: putting my legs in straps, pushing in and out and using my arms to push up and down. At one point, I glide on a moving bench-top on my stomach while I work my legs against the resistance of the springs. Later, I'm on my side on the "moving bed", crunching my abs by using the resistance of the machine's springs.

Monachino constantly corrects my movements and tells me which muscles to focus on and hit, all the while reminding me when to breathe in or out so as to get the most out of each exercise. She talks a lot about strengthening the "core", the deep abdominal layers of muscles that run along the vertebrae, back and pelvic floor.

How much? Anyone going to Peak Pilates must first do a one-on-one session with a physio ($62-$80). Mat classes cost $30 for a casual visit or there's a 10-class concession card for $180. A reformer class is $40 (concession card $310).

Worth it? It's a great way to work towards a healthy and strong physique.

Try it: There are eight Peak Pilates centres in Auckland and other providers nationwide.

Rating: 8/10

- Herald on Sunday

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