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Pilates exercise turns gym rat into Gumby
Program targets specific muscles for great workout
By Margaret LeBrun as published in Post-Crescent Newspaper, Wisconsin, 2004

OK, I'll admit it. I have been faking that I knew what pilates is all about. From the first time I saw a poster at a gym advertising what I incorrectly pronounced in my head as "PIE-lates," I figured, oh, that's just some boring floor exercises.

Then I met some Appleton women who taught classes in what they called (say it sweetly) "puh-LAH-tees," which sort of rhymes with la-ti-da. They looked trim and fit, and THEY weren't lifting heavy weights or running multiple miles. Clearly there was something to these floor exercises.

When I popped "STOTT PILATES' Essential Matwork for Beginners" into my VCR, I kept the remote close at hand, expecting a dull series of basic stretches and leg lifts. But as I followed along with this, my first crack at an exercise video since Jane Fonda's "Complete Workout," I found it far more mentally stimulating, more physically invigorating than equal time on a treadmill.

Instructor Moira Merrithew began by explaining, "The STOTT PILATES system is a contemporary approach to the mind-body exercise method pioneered by the late Joseph H. Pilates." Pilates, I later learned, was a German-born student of yoga, zen meditation and rigorous exercise regimens of ancient Greeks and Romans. In New York City during the 1920s, he devised a series of controlled movements that engage the mind and body in developing strong, flexible muscles, without building bulk.

I also discovered that pilates (no longer a proper name when referring to the exercises) realized the greatest increase in participation in any exercise activity in the last couple of years, nearly doubling in popularity from 2001 to 2002, according to a study by American Sports Data, Inc.

But back to the video. Ms. Merrithew's soothing voice explained that her exercises enhance Pilates' original teachings with updated principles of core stability and functional fitness. This video, the second edition of her "Matwork for Beginners, "aims to build on deep abdominal and back strength, flexibility, endurance and posture without adding bulk or stress to the joints.

First she leads the viewer through some simple warm-up stretches. I nearly enlisted the remote through these sleepy scenes, but once I was on the floor, it felt lovely to bend my knees and relax my vertebrae, "one at a time." She focused quite a lot on breathing, which I am very good at.

Several minutes into the warm-up, Ms. Merrithew began some exercises that were so artfully contrived they evoked images of the Twyla Tharp modern dance company. She stretched her sculpted arms so gracefully that I was not surprised to discover she had been a ballerina in an earlier life. It seems she left the Ballet Rambert in London after breaking her foot and learned the rehabilitative exercises for dancers devised by Pilates (early followers included such dance greats as Martha Graham and George Ballanchine). Merrithew updated and enhanced Pilates' exercises for today's students of low-impact exercise.

Indeed, as she led the stretching exercises, it was obvious that this video could help smooth the way back into physical activity after an injury or a bout with back pain (of course, she recommends a doctor's OK before diving into her workout routine). Her Cat Stretch, in which you get on your hands and knees and curl your backbone like a cat, and then her Shell Stretch, in which you stretch your arms and tuck your head in your lap, left me feeling Gumby-like and keenly aware of my posture.

Ms. Merrithew continually talked through all the exercises, emphasizing proper form, describing how particular body parts should relax, stress or work through each movement. I found it tricky to follow the exercises correctly while listening and craning my neck to see the TV, though I'm sure a second run through would be easier. You cannot "just go through the motions" with pilates; clearly, the exercises engage the mind to concentrate on working specific muscles to achieve optimum physical potential.

The video steadily progresses to more challenging exercises, especially several sets of different abdominal crunches, derriere lifts, leg-and-head lifts and more, each with fancier names than this. Some were quite silly, including the Seal, which requires you to clutch the front of your ankles from the inside of your legs, roll on your butt and then slap your feet together on the upswing.

"It's called the Seal because you have to clap," with your feet, Merrithew explained. "This shows how much control you're under."

Right. Fortunately, you can hit the remote if someone comes into the room. Fortunately, done alone, this is one heck of a workout that left me feeling flexible, physically as well as mentally refreshed — and I admit, even a little sweaty.

We'll see how those abs feel tomorrow morning.

The video:

STOTT PILATES "Essential Matwork for Beginners" The Total Body Workout, 2nd Edition with Master Instructor Trainer Moira Merrithew

Margaret LeBruin can be reached by email at