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17 Sep

Can Pilates Make You Lose Weight?

Separating the Marketing from the Truth: An Expert Offers Her Insights

This is a guest post from pilates pro Zoe Anderson of thinkpilates.com.

Pilates and Weight Loss

So… is pilates really the new diet pill that some make it out to be? Can I feel like a celebrity for only an hour of effort a day and lose 65 pounds while obtaining a rock hard bum?

Whether you want to call it a fad – or mere misrepresentation – using pilates to lose weight is not a good idea. It’s just not the most efficient method. However, Pilates is unique in that it can change your body shape without affecting your body weight significantly. Think of it as sculpting.

Let’s break this down.

How To Lose Weight

Simple. You need to burn more calories than you consume.

A six-month long study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (Redman, et.al., Effects of Calorie Restriction…, 1/2007) confirmed that weight loss is based on calories. Your caloric intake needs to be less than your calories exerted. (Editor’s note: to both lose weight and maintain good health, the type of calories you consume also matter.)

It is possible to lose weight without exercise – but it gets pretty difficult, especially with those trendy high-sugar coffee drinks that we can’t seem to resist. And as we all know by now, exercising has a whole slew of other added benefits that should be reaped!

Calories Burned: Pilates Exercise vs. Other Exercise

If we need to exert more calories than we put into our bodies, then we need to know how many calories we exert during exercise.

General Exercise

The Mayo Clinic conducted a study using several hundred people, weighing around 145* (please see editor’s note) pounds, to find the calories burned during one hour of various forms of exercise. The results were as follows:

* Aerobic Dancing 416
* Backpacking 448
* Badminton 288
* Bicycling (outdoor) 512
* Bicycling (stationary) 448
* Bowling 192
* Canoeing 224
* Dancing 288
* Gardening 256
* Golfing 288
* Hiking 384
* Jogging (5 mph) 512
* Racquetball 448
* Rope Jumping 640
* Running (8 mph) 864
* Skating 448
* Skiing (cross-country) 512
* Skiing (downhill) 384
* Stair Climbing 576
* Swimming 384
* Tennis 448
* Volleyball 192
* Walking (2 mph) 160

Pilates Exercise

On SELF.com, which I found to be the most thorough source, I found the following information for a 145 lb* person doing pilates for one hour:

* Beginner level pilates 241* calories

* Intermediate level pilates 338*

* Advanced level pilates 421*

If I plugged in someone who weighed less than 145* lbs, the amount of calories burned was, of course, less.

Pilates and Weight Loss: The hard numbers

When pilates is compared to the general exercise list – the calories burned are mid-way between the extremes of running and walking. So, it is possible to lose weight while using pilates as a source of exercise. However if I were only looking to lose weight I would not recommend pilates because it is simply not the most efficient way to lose weight. In a day and age where time somehow equals money – efficiency (and effectiveness) is key. There are many other ways to lose weight that will get you greater and quicker results. But no matter which type of exercise you choose, you still need to take food consumption into consideration.

Pilates Goes Far Beyond Weight Loss

I don’t get many athletes who seek me out as a pilates instructor and say “I want to lose weight.” However, I love having clients of many different shapes and sizes who come to the pilates studio for a myriad of reasons. These benefits of pilates that people of all sizes can reap are as follows:

* improved posture
* full body tone
* relieved back pain
* increased joint mobility and control
* increased flexibility
* improved sports performance
* off season conditioning, etc.

Misrepresentation in Pilates Marketing

1- So why do some pilates ads demonstrate a 300+ lb. person shown as losing 150 lbs. via pilates?

It should be noted that someone who is larger/has had little activity for an extended amount of time will lose more weight than a fit person. For instance, someone who hasn’t exercised in a couple of years will lose more weight from pilates (or any other amount of moderate activity) than the recreational cyclist.

2- Certain pilates programs can be modified to help boost weight loss, but this does not mean that all pilates workouts are going to help you lose weight. The type and level of workout you participate in can really make a difference in how many calories you burn. Pilates classes and privates are taught very differently all over the world. Some classes are slower and based more on principles, some are moderate, and some are geared towards weight loss by doing rapid fire workouts with added pilates props like the jump board to the reformer. It has been noted that doing a cardio form of exercise prior to a pilates workout helps the heart rate stay higher during the pilates workout. Minimizing the breaks between exercises also helps to keep the heart rate high.

3- Pilates does have some extraordinary effects on the body.

Pilates really does change the shape of the body by building leaner muscles instead of bulky ones. Pilates is also a full body method so it tones the entire body during each session, instead of specific spots. Because of this your entire body will look “tighter.” In pilates there is also a large focus on the center or “core” and as a result your waist will lose inches. So your clothes may be a little loose in the waist, you may stand taller, and your muscles may lean out but for the most part you will still be the same size. It will be an optical illusion that you lost some weight, if you did not alter your diet or do any supplemental training.

The bottom line is: do pilates for some of the great benefits that are above and beyond weight loss. If you walk into a pilates studio expecting to lose weight you probably won’t find that, become frustrated with pilates, and never come back again. We instructors hate to see that happen – all because of some bad marketing industry. Pilates has some serious bragging rights – losing weight is just not one of them.

Did you like Zoe’s post? Have you had any experience (positive or negative) with pilates? What are your thoughts, Apples?

*EDITOR’S NOTE 9/20/07 11:39 a.m.: The author has requested an update to some of the weight and calories burned numbers in this post. Changes have been made and are noted with an asterisk.

Further Reading:

The 7 Habits of Thin (Healthy) People

Weight Loss Plateau

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  1. I think this is why people are NOT losing weight…because we believe this “How To Lose Weight. Simple. You need to burn more calories than you consume.”

    Losing weight is 90%+ what you eat and a possible all day hormonal event based on your food and external environment stimulus (stress, exercise, etc)…not how many calories one burns during a certain activity. Everyone can have different ways to use muscles..but unless they are eating correctly, weight loss is not going to happen. If you eat sugar…you WILL not burn fat, because you hormonally told your body to not for the next 3 hours until your insulin levels come back down.

    We don’t need to exercise more in some cases but rather realize the bigger issue is taking personal responsibility for what we shove down our throats. Until that time you can do pilates, power walk with a 3lb weight, play hopscotch or whatever…but fat loss will not happen or be sustained for a long time.

    Mike OD wrote on September 17th, 2007
  2. What is this crap about spot reducing around the waist with pilates? You said:

    In pilates there is also a large focus on the center or “core” and as a result your waist will lose inches.

    But, every research article indicates that spot reduction techniques are ineffective. You may loose weight around the waist because you are losing weight overall but there is not specific spot reduction ability with pilates compared to other weight loss techniques.

    CJS wrote on September 17th, 2007
    • I’ve been doing pilates for a month and my middle has slimmed down. I have a short torso woth long legs and carry my weight around my middle. Pilates has reduced my waistline.

      LB wrote on June 23rd, 2012
    • it´s nothing to do with spot reducing fat, but rather about increased abdominal strength which means that you no longer let your stomach flop out. Please try and understand the article before attacking

      JKP wrote on July 12th, 2012
  3. Hi CJS.
    There is a difference between losing weight and losing inches. Measure your relaxed waist, then suck it in and measure it again. There — you’ve lost an inch. If you want to maintain that particular type of inch loss, you need to strengthen your core so that your ab muscles hold you in tighter and Pilates does that. That’s what she (Zoe) is talking about and it’s very clear from the article. That’s not at all the so-called “spot reduction” you’re talking about.

    lolla wrote on September 17th, 2007
  4. I treat pilates as another, perhaps more gentle form of weight training/toning. It doesn’t replace my cardio because its rare my heart-rate increases by much when i do pilates. As an avid runner, am pretty unflexible so i feel like a novice when i am taking pilates classes. Its threaputic and helpful when you have injuries, but it shouldn’t replace cardio.

    Hungry Waif wrote on September 17th, 2007
  5. It’s still a bit misleading; you can only tone the transversus so far before simple physics take over and no more “inches” can be lost.

    What I want to know is how Pilates builds “lean” instead of “bulky” muscles. As I understand it muscle tissue is muscle tissue, and the length of your muscles depends on the length of your bones and the attachment points of the tendons and ligaments, which shouldn’t really be changeable except through surgery. Unless the author really means Pilates won’t cause hypertrophy…?

    LabRat wrote on September 17th, 2007
    • Muscle tissue isn’t just muscle tissue. There are two different fibers that make up a muscle: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch can be considered your endurance fibers, which will make your muscles lean, and fast-twitch can be considered strength fibers, which create bulky muscles. Pilates, Yoga, 12-16 reps with light weights and endurance cardio all utilize your slow-twitch muscle fibers. A good example can be found by looking at cross-country runners versus sprinters.

      Mandie wrote on August 2nd, 2012
  6. I’m always leery of these “calorie per hour” charts.
    The example of “out door bicycling” above is a case in point. Does anyone not think that there is a difference from a guy cruising around his neighborhood for an hour and for someone doing 20mph in a headwind? I know this is just for illustrative purposes but it still ends up on my pet peeves list!

    –Dave (now down 18lbs since going “primal”)

    Dave C. wrote on September 17th, 2007
  7. Mike OD: Well said. Barry Sears was among the first to suggest that eating was a (an?) “hormonal experience.” I think he’s right.

    LabRat: The debate about “long, lean” vs “bulky” muscle has raged on for years. I think you can affect the shape of your body (muscles) by choosing different forms of exercise. You might even say that training is a hormonal experience also. Different forms of exercise send different signals to the muscles. Body builders choose work that intentionally generates shorter, bulky, “volumized” muscles, while pilates and dancers do work in a wide range of motion at lower resistance that increase strength marginally, but creates those longer leaner muscles. Certainly the starting body-type will determine the extent to which you can max-out in your choice of shape, but the specificity of exercise does alter the muscle response.

    Dave C: Congrats on your progress so far. I agree that the calories-burned charts are a little vague, but you have to start somewhere. These are mostly for the couch potatoes who are maybe looking for a way to start burning calories doing something they like.

    BTW, this is a great thread and I am enjoying the apple dialogues.

    Mark Sisson wrote on September 18th, 2007
  8. Mostly I’m trying to fix the physiology in my mind.

    Would what you’re talking about, e.g., be sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (“bulky”) vs. myofibrillar hypertrophy (“lean”)?

    LabRat wrote on September 18th, 2007
  9. LabRat:

    That’s partly it. Then there’s the genetic mix of slowtwitch vs fast twitch fibers and the way you choose to train and or recruit each. High slowtwitchers who train slow or use low weight/high rep develop ST fibers disproportionately over FT. That’s why a marathoner or triathlete looks longer/leaner than a sprinter even though a sprinter almost always has lower body fat.

    Mark wrote on September 18th, 2007
  10. Interesting. Thanks.

    LabRat wrote on September 18th, 2007
  11. The calories burned list is all wrong. It’s from the 140 lb list, not 170 lb, thus greatly underestimating calories burned.

    Also, for some odd reason, the number for walking at 3.5 mph is omitted. Walking at 2 mph is an extremely slow, window shopping pace and isn’t really realistic for someone taking a brisk walk for fitness. 3.5 mph is much more reasonable and at 293 calories puts it ahead of beginner pilates.

    It’s also not fair to reject the lower calorie burning exercises on the grounds of efficiency because this doesn’t take into account the fact that someone overweight and out of shape would never be able to do an activity like running at 8 mph for sustained periods of time and would likely suffer from muscle aches that would prevent them from running on a daily basis. If you suggest jogging for 30 minutes a day to someone 30 lbs overweight, you’re setting them up for failure.

    Dave wrote on September 18th, 2007
    • Your Wrong sorry =)

      diane wrote on June 16th, 2011
  12. well as a woman, i always have other women around me saying, you i dont want to lift weights cause i dont want to get “bulky” so i do pilates…but most women, unless on steroids, simply lack the ability to get “big”. Ive done pilates on and off along with my regular running, but i notice i look more toned and defined when i actaully commit to a weight training regimine a few times a week.

    Hungry Waif wrote on September 18th, 2007
    • I’m sorry but you are incorrect. It depends on the womans body type. I am of northern German decent and I tend to get very large man like looking muscles, particularly in my lower body. I have found that by avoiding heavy weights and adding both pilates and yoga to my regular work outs I do not “bulk up” as much for lack of a better term. I still have larger looking muscles than most women though and I always will because that’s how my body is.

      Sara wrote on January 2nd, 2012
  13. Dave, we were having an html hiccup on the last bullet point, thus the 3.5 omission ;)

    Sara wrote on September 18th, 2007
  14. Oops! :) Thought for sure I saw your name, Crystal…lol :)

    Sara wrote on September 18th, 2007
  15. Waif: That’s about my take on it. If you want flexibility, stretch, if you want strength, cut straight to the chase and move heavy things around. I can think of more effective ways to pursue pretty much everything on the list.

    Lovely for some, though, especially if you want a little bit of everything and don’t mind slow gains. Less chance of dropping a barbell on your face, too.

    LabRat wrote on September 18th, 2007
  16. lolla,

    We aren’t talking about sucking in bellies and relaxing bellies we are talking about adipose around the midsection. To not believe that this is measurable in a scientific fashion is not credible. If you want to strengthen with pilates or any other method go ahead but it is not going to reduce fat in any particular body part more than another.

    In my not-so-professional opinion if you asked people if they want to lose an inch around the waist they would not take seriously the option of walking around with their stomach “sucked in” all day. When someone wants to lose an inch around the waist they mean they want to lose fat around their waist. To lose weight around their waist they will have to lose weight over their entire body – there is not a credible spot reduction technique.

    CJS wrote on September 19th, 2007
  17. CJS – I understand that you’re talking about spot reduction of fat and how that’s impossible and all. What I’m saying is belly-fat isn’t the only factor in waist size. Pilates can strengthen your core and improve your posture, both of which can produce inch loss in the waist.

    lolla wrote on September 19th, 2007
  18. Some great comments here! Here are a few responses.

    Dave:
    Thanks for the note! Have sent the editor a note to correct it. The calories lost in the “general exercise list” remains the same with people weighing an average of 145 pounds. The calculations for pilates are changed to the following for a 145 pound person doing an hour of pilates:
    beginner level pialtes: 241
    intermediate level pilates: 338
    advanced level pilates: 421

    Mike OD:
    Absolutely… what you eat is important! For those people who buy a Winsor Pilates tape thinking they can drop 60 pounds in two weeks need the basic understanding of weight loss. For many people it begins with getting a big picture idea and then looking at what they eat and how that fuels – or does not fuel- their body. Most people dreaming about weight loss and thinking pilates is a quick fix have not done their homework about weight loss, food, and their environment like you seem to have!

    We can only guess how accurate these exercise charts are. Just like Dave C pointed out about cycling, it is similar within the pilates charts. As I mentioned previously – pilates routines can vary largely. There are many variables: type of instructor, speed, school of thought, equipment, etc! But it can give us a scope of the knowledge we have – thus far! And that is helpful for those trying to understand how pilates does or does not fit into their fitness plans.

    CJS:
    Let me clarify. Pilates is not spot reduction. This statement is exactly correct. “If you want to strengthen with pilates or any other method go ahead but it is not going to reduce fat in any particular body part more than another.” I’m not talking to my clients about burning fat. I will help my clients tone, gain mobility, gain endurance, etc. but what happens when they gain strength and toned abdominal muscles but you can’t see them underneath fat (if they have it)?! This is when they need to have that talk about looking at their diet their exercise their environment, etc! So when I talked about knowing your motives before walking into the studio – this is when it is helpful.

    When reading this article we’re probably grouping people into a few different groups. Fit, a few extra pounds, too many extra pounds. (stick with me) You have to remember that pilates will sculpt the body of someone fit and with a few extra pounds but probably not the too many extra pounds person (see paragraph above)!

    Will people lose weight with moderate exercise who are in that “too many extra pounds” category, yes! Is pilates moderate exercise, yes! But think about the movements in pilates – can a person that large really do all of those exercises? In my experience they get more frustrated.
    If a larger person is in the studio because they are working on improving posture because of back pain, true story, she is generally going to have a higher incentive to work through that frustration. It’s been my experience that having a more overweight person do something like walking – which they are much more capable of – are probably going to gain quicker results from than rolling like a ball on the floor. Again, pretty relative.

    A credible pilates teacher will explain to you how to properly engage the abdominal muscles starting from the begining – the pelvic floor. Though “sucking in” is the first response, it is not correct nor safe.

    Lolla: Well said in the end. It is not just about one thing. Pilates can give you benefits (a few out of many) that make you appear as though you have lost some weight or fat, but generally you haven’t lost that fat. Losing fat is another ball game that pilates isn’t playing.
    Pilates has had a huge spike in popularity and one of the reasons why is because people think that they can lose weight from doing it. This is not exactly true.

    Peace.

    Zoe Anderson wrote on September 19th, 2007
  19. A good comparison between Pilates exercise and general exercise is analyzed. ‘Biotrainerusa’ will be the good solution for it.

    Pete wrote on January 14th, 2008
  20. For people who have npt been getting any exercise at all, then I think Pilates is a great start, and they will see some results.

    Women's Pilates Clothing wrote on September 14th, 2010
  21. After I had my daughter I ballooned to 198. I was 25 and miserable. I did pilates ( winsor advanced DVD every other day) for 3 months. I went from a size 16 to a size 6. My weight dropped for 198 to 145. I maintained a low carb diet as carbs have always been my weakness. It upsets me that people say you can’t, you can’t only If you don’t apply yourself to pilates and a diet. Now I am still a size 6. I have an extrusion in my lower back and running/walking only aggravate my back. Devote yourself and all things are possible.

    Julie wrote on December 10th, 2010
  22. Great article. I have done weight training & bodyweight training b4 going for intensive pilates courses using reformers, spine corrector, mat & other pilates related equipments. I have noticed that when I was weight training (heavy weights) I bulk up but with not much definition but when I did pilates for 3 months, I began to notice a change in my body. My body reduces it’s bulk look & transform into lean & more define muscles. My core became stronger, I felt taller & better still, my posture awareness increases. There are many gym goers that hit on weights without realizing the importance of good form . In fact pilates in fact will help you improve your weight training because you will be more aware of your body movement. Oh well, i don’t think you can get much results in just mat work alone, you must try other resistance pilates equipments to truly experience pilates.

    Cindy wrote on January 29th, 2011
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    lose weight wrote on October 27th, 2011
  24. Hi! I am a chef that had really struggled with keeping the weight off and pilates has helped!

    Im not sure if its the muscle burning fat thing BUT I will say its a workout I didn’t skip, even if you’re tired and stressed you show up because its not too stressful and you work every muscle in your bod with each movement. Its dramatically changed they way my body is shaped – I’m taller, WAY leaner, my legs have never looked better!

    Ive found that what’s most efficient is the hardest to stick to – pilates can be a really great workout, even if it isn’t the quickest way to shed calories.

    Michelle wrote on December 17th, 2011
  25. Hi,

    I have been in the Pilates Teacher Training Program for over a year, so I do pilates at least 3X a week for sometimes 2-3 hours at a time. While I have not lost “fat,” my body has changed, I’m so much stronger, I’ve gone down one size and I no longer have ANY back pain.

    I know how to lose weight, but I got lazy over the last few years (4 kids later :-O) however, I have begun to cut out starchy carbs (especially things with gluten) and all sugar. I am now sleeping better, I have more energy and overall vigor. I have 30 pounds to lose, but I know you absolutely HAVE to do cardio almost every day if you’re trying to burn fat (you really need to do it BEFORE you eat as well, so it doesn’t burn what you just ate)

    I have begun interval training where I start slow, speed up and then do sprints if I’m running or if I’m cycling, I’ll do different intervals as well. This type of cardio shocks the body and forces the body to change and burn the fat, whereas jogging every day for 5 miles at the same pace will eventually prove pointless (and may actually GIVE you heart disease)

    I won the Body for Life Challenge in 2004 (round 3) and I simply committed to a 90 day challenge. I ate low carb (works for me, but I’m O+ blood type too), drank tons of water every day, ate high quality protein, completely cut the sugar except for my “free day” every week and worked out six days a week… On cardio days I would do 20 min of moderate to high intensity interval training and on weights days, I would do lower body or upper body with abs every day.

    I went from a size 16 to a size 7/8 in 3 months and never felt better. I kinda let myself go when I had kids, but now it’s time to get back to it :) Good luck everyone!!

    Jennifer wrote on December 31st, 2011
  26. Did Pilates for years starting when the term “Pilates” was still legally protected. Yeah, it helped me get out of the rut I was in and on the path to fitness but it did not make me lean or strong or healthy. In fact, focusing on my core gave me two hernias – one behind my navel and another in my groin.

    Dirk wrote on February 17th, 2012
  27. Pilates 2-3 times a week for that coke bottle shape, cardio for weight loss. Pilates reminds me of yoga in that you have to concentrate. I like to put on some jazz or aura and do Pilates.

    Janee wrote on July 28th, 2014

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