When my clients ask, “What is Pilates?” I define it as a system of exercises designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, posture, and mental awareness. My clients continue to train, because they like that it makes them feel strong, coordinated and for some, graceful. Many also love how empowered they feel with less pain and lower stress levels. It gives them a sense of well-being and comfort in their own bodies.
But did you know that Pilates may have a profound impact on reducing stress? Numerous studies support this claim. Let’s take a deeper dive into Pilates and its neurological effect on stress reduction.
The Core in Pilates and Stress Reduction
In general, we know that exercise is a great way to manage our stress. There is abundant data on how various forms of movement increase our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins.
However, Pilates may reduce stress in very specific ways. This is because Pilates actually activates the muscles that help to control the stress response. Take for example, the core or the axial muscles, part of “centering” in the eight Pilates principles. These muscles include the abdominals, the back extensors and the glutes, to name a few. These muscles are neurologically related to the organs that control the stress response. The more they are used the stronger the opportunity to reduce the negative responses of stress.
An article featured in The Atlantic discusses how neuroscientists discovered that core movements reduce stress levels in the body. This happens through direct neurological connections between the motor cortex (the part of the brain where movements are initiated and controlled) and the adrenal medulla (a small organ on top of each kidney that controls hormones that initiate the flight or fight response).
This was further proven in a study at the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Institute. Peter Strick, a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology, states that “there’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress”. He discovered a network of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain’s motor cortex that controls the adrenal medulla. Remember, the adrenal medulla is responsible for regulating our stress response. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers discovered that the motor areas in the brain connect to the adrenal glands.
Initially the research team didn’t think the motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But they discovered that there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. When you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex. This is the part of the brain that controls the contraction and stabilization of the “core” muscles.
Does this mean we can use core exercises to alter our stress response? The researchers seem to think that’s a possibility! Randy Bruno, an associate professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, further explained that “these neural pathways might explain our intuitive sense for why there are many different strategies for coping with stress. I like the examples they give in the paper—that maybe this is why yoga and Pilates are so successful”.
The SAID principle and stress reduction
It’s always important to recognize the nervous system’s direct involvement in movement outcomes. I write more about this in my SAID Principle blog. In my Pilates practice, I’ve noticed how chronic postural limitations reduce my clients’ ability to progress, which in turn reduces their ability to strengthen their core alignment and the reduction of stress. These include rounded shoulder syndrome, forward head and hyperextension of the lumbar spine to name a few.
According to this principle and the brain and nervous system’s role in movement, poor postural alignment prevents or slows the development of learning new movement skills well. This is because we move inefficiently when we are out of alignment with bad posture and can not activate the correct muscles as efficiently to improve a given movement or exercise.. Peter Strick basically states this when he says:
“when you see somebody that’s depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel. I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.”
Main Pilates movements and stress reduction
Pilates training makes the body feel strong, flexible and graceful. It gives a sense of empowerment due to the effects the training has on our internal state. Now, as in the above examples, we have research showing the neurological benefits of stress reduction that result from correctly activating the axial or core muscles. And this is one of the main focuses of Pilates. In my practice, I train my clients to understand the importance of both good posture and how it affects their ability to activate the axial muscles in an integrative manner. This requires mindful and continuous focus.
These core muscles are engaged and often initiate movements throughout each session I teach. This means my clients are continuing to activate the neurons that also manage the reduction of stress and its effects on the body.
With the advances in brain scanning technology and research we can continue to educate ourselves as to how the brain and nervous system impacts our posture and movement quality and now, reduce stress. This information and more to come helps us address the root causes of what really holds us back from attaining higher levels of function and feel better in the process. These are exciting times in the movement field and I look forward to sharing more of this type of research in the future.