Pilates For Heart Health: The Benefits, Risks, and Rewards

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Learn how Pilates can positively impact your cardiovascular condition, including reduced blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease, and more.

Pilates is the ideal activity within your healthy lifestyle, or as a method to build a healthy lifestyle. Not only does Pilates increase flexibility and mobility (the range of movement in the joints), but it can improve your breathing, posture, and balance. Research has also shown that Pilates improves heart health through improved respiration, decreasing physical and emotional stress, and through improved metabolic function. A healthy heart and a healthy body are important - even more so as we age and want to maintain independence, strength, and optimum health and vitality.

For all the benefits and many reasons to embrace Pilates as a beginner or as a dedicated ongoing practitioner, it is also important to take the necessary precautions if you are at risk of, or diagnosed with, a heart condition.

Heart Disease: What should I know about the risks and causes?

Heart disease is the major cause of death amongst men and women in America, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the leading cause of death for most racial, ethnic groups in the United States with approximately 630,000 Americans dying of heart disease per year. This is devastating for their families and loved ones and it costs the United States around $200 billion annually (accounting for health care, medications, and lost productivity).

Unfortunately, about half of Americans have at least one of the risk factors that can cause or exacerbate heart disease: high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking.

Other factors that can increase the risk of heart disease include diabetes, overweight and obesity, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol intake.

Is Pilates safe for heart conditions and can it be part of treatment?

According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Cardiology, Mat Pilates is effective in improving body weight composition and lowering blood pressure in women with high blood pressure (also called hypertension).

After the age of 55, more women than men develop hypertension, though this study proved that through twice-weekly Pilates sessions, the women in the study lowered their systolic (upper number) blood pressure, diastolic (lower number) blood pressure, and reduced their waist and hip measurements.

Pilates Anytime teacher, Kristi Cooper, modifies the sequences and moves to avoid clients holding their breath or lowering their head below their hips (inversion) for an extended time.

For my clients who have high blood pressure, I tend to focus on fluid movements that don't require a heavy load or lend themselves to the client holding their breath. I also avoid inversions like Short Spine, Roll Over, and depending on other factors (weight and age mostly), I'll avoid Shoulder Bridge and the like as well.

—Kristi Cooper

My doctor has advised me to lose weight for my heart health. Can Pilates help?

As this study showed, the middle-aged women who partook in 16 weeks of Mat Pilates twice-weekly sessions lost over an inch from their waist and hips. Their overall body weight didn't alter significantly, which indicates that they were gaining muscle and losing body fat from the key risk areas for heart disease: the belly and hips.

Burning fat and building lean muscle is key to boosting metabolic function, which enhances calorie burn even while resting. With consistent Pilates practice (minimum of two sessions a week), you can expect to build lean muscle and burn fat. Naturally, a healthy and balanced diet is vital to any weight loss goals. The Heart Research Institute of Australia offers a free eBook of recipes that may inspire you to make meals that support your optimal healthy lifestyle.

Can Pilates lower my blood pressure?

Treatment for high blood pressure (hypertension) involves lifestyle changes, primarily. It can also require medication and ongoing review. According to a review of numerous studies on how Pilates effects hypertension, evidence supports training with isometric exercises particularly. The reason for this is that isometric exercises (elemental to the Pilates method) can produce similar effects to aerobic exercise in reducing blood pressure.

What lifestyle choices are recommended to reduce blood pressure? Treatment for reducing blood pressure may involve medication, but regardless, it centers around lifestyle choices. These choices include:

  • stopping smoking
  • losing weight for overweight and obese individuals
  • doing aerobic exercise
  • taking a healthy, balanced approach to eating
  • reduceding sodium (salt) intake

What sort of exercises should I be doing?

A study for Sports Medicine found evidence that isometric exercise training in medicated and non-medicated patients of all ages and genders can lower blood pressure in a similar way to aerobic exercise like running or cycling.

Isometric exercises involve holding the muscles in contraction, under pressure, for a period of time to challenge strength. In Plank Holds, for example, you may balance on your hands and knees or your forearms and toes for approximately a minute or longer to build abdominal, glute, back, and hip strength.

The reason researchers made isometric exercise an important part of treatment in heart conditions is that many patients found it difficult to maintain interest in, and commitment to, aerobic exercise regimes but there was greater adherence to a Pilates regime.

It sounds like Pilates is good for heart health, regardless of age and gender?

The controlled pace, mindful breathing, and isometric exercises inherent in the Pilates method make it an ideal practice for those who have been advised to improve their heart health, prevent heart disease, or reduce stress. Pilates is a practice that can be tailored to be modified and accessible for every age, gender, and fitness level. Please do keep in mind that if you have a heart condition or the risk factors, seek advice from your doctor before commencing any new physical activity. See you in class!

About the Author

Cat Woods

Cat Woods is the Australian founder of Ballet Sculpt, a barre, yoga and Pilates instructor and writer. She has written on fitness, food, travel and beauty for various media and her own blog, Core Integrity for over a decade. She is a self-confessed daily user of Pilates Anytime, with a particular dedication to Meredith Roger's mat classes.


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