An estimated 6 million people across the country are now strengthening their bodies and minds, and losing weight, with the help of pilates exercises, the fastest growing fitness trend in decades. Among the Hollywood celebrities publicly touting its benefits, Goldie Hawn, Candace Bergen, Brad Pitt, Ben Afleck and Matthew Broderick.

Thanks to the Methods popularity, a growing industry has emerged. More than 11 thousand people in the U.S. now claim to be pilates instructors, but according to the Pilates Method Alliance, (PMA), the international, notforprofit, professional association that establishes certification and continuing education standards for Pilates professionals, at least 25 percent of them have not been properly trained.

"If you are working with an instructor who doesnt have adequate training, you run an incredible risk of getting hurt," says Kevin Bowen, co-founder of the PMA. "Pilates isnt something you just start doing one day. You have to make sure you have an instructor who understands the Method and how to make the exercises work for you."

If done correctly, pilates exercises strengthen, tone and stretch the body, encourage proper breathing and facilitate good posture. Here are 10 important questions you should ask an instructor before signing up for their class:

  • What kind of training did you go through and where?
  • How much time was spent in your original training?
  • How long have you been teaching?
  • Did you only learn the mat work or was your program comprehensive in nature, teaching you pilates exercises on the pilates equipment?
  • Do you understand the body, have basic knowledge of kinesiology and understand fundamental biomechanics?
  • Do you understand the aging process?
  • Do you pay close attention to safety and guidelines?
  • Does the facility where you teach practice safety standards for group classes?
  • Do you have a commitment to continuing education?
  • Are you affiliated with a professional organization like the Pilates Method Alliance?

The History of Pilates

Around 1914, Joseph Pilates the man for whom the exercise regimen is named -- was a performer and a boxer living in England. At the outbreak of WWI, he was placed under forced internment along with other German nationals in Lancaster, England. There he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens.

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It was at this time that he began devising the system of original exercises known today as "matwork," or exercises done on the floor. He called this regimen "Contrology." A few years later, he was transferred to another camp, where he became a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his "patients," taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and movement for the bedridden.

In a way, Pilates equipment today is not much different than that of yesteryear. Spring tension, straps to hold feet or hands, supports for back, neck and shoulder are as important now as they were then. Because of the remarkable nature of the equipment to both challenge and support the body as it learns to move more efficiently, the inimitably designed pieces truly act as a complement to the challenging "matwork" exercises.

For help finding a pilates studio or instructor in your area, who is likely to answer these questions to your satisfaction, log onto the Pilates Method Alliance Web site at http://www.pilatesmethodalliance.org. Click on the link on the left hand side that says "Finding a Teacher." That will take you to a page with a link to a searchable database.

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