5 ways Pilates can help your Mental Health
1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England (McManus 2009), and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health issue (like anxiety or depression) in any given week in England (McManus, 2016) How can taking a Pilates class help?
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment in a particular way, on purpose, and without judgement. Simply put, our minds can be a bit like an untrained puppy and continually be wandering off into thoughts and daydreams without us intending it to happen. If we're under stress or feeling low, our minds may have a tendency to wander into negative thoughts and feelings, which can then make us feel worse, and our mood spirals downwards. Mindfulness is a way to learn to notice what our 'puppy' mind is doing. With practice, you can get better at not getting swept up in thoughts and feelings, and ground yourself more in the present.
How does pilates help?
Let me start by saying that not everything you do in a pilates class will be mindful movement. (True mindful movement has no judgement at all, so you are not striving to achieve anything.) In a pilates class, usually your instructor will spend some of the lesson helping you to improve your alignment and technique - there is always a new challenge to enjoy, so in this sense, there will be an element of striving (and you'll feel better as a result - more of that later). But a good pilates instructor will also encourage you to spend some of the time simply noticing your body and how it feels. She will encourage you to simply become curious about your body and sensations you are experiencing. This approach of being curious and aware of the sensations in your body is a form of mindful movement.
Often, a pilates class will also end with a guided relaxation. This can be a lovely way to give yourself permission to switch off during a busy week, and if your instructor is also trained in mindfulness, you may find you are gradually building gentle mindfulness skills each week.
Activate your parasympathetic nervous system (hit your reset button)
When you are under stress, your body's sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is your body's fight or flight response, and your body will produce hormones like cortisol, and when exposed to these for long periods of time, they can be damaging to your health.
The antidote to this is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. If the sympathetic nervous system is like the accelerator of a car, then the parasympathetic system is your brake. It allows your body to rest, heal, digest by releasing hormones that make you calm and relaxed.
One of the first things you'll notice in a pilates session is that your instructor focuses on your breath. The breath will be a thread that runs through your class, linking the movements you do. In some of your sessions there will be a dedicated segment about breathing and learning how to do it well, By focusing on your breath in this way, you allow your parasympathetic nervous system to release relaxing and calming hormones.
Movement boosts mood
Research has shown that exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function (Callaghan 2004). Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal (Guszkowska M 2004).
So what exercise is most effective at improving mental health? It doesn't matter - just choose something you enjoy. In fact, if you are under a high level of stress, it may be counter-productive to put yourself under more pressure in the gym to complete a high-intensity cardio workout - if you feel pressure to do this when you are tired, it can just add another layer of cortisol into your system.
Instead, choose something you enjoy and that you can easily build into your weekly or daily life. Short but regular movements that get you out of a chair are great. Even the simplest of movements can provide an immediate reset for your mood and brain chemistry. New research has shown how repeatedly contracting any muscles, through continuous exercise, releases antidepressant substances called myokines that scientists have dubbed ‘hope molecules’ (McGonigal, 2020)
Time for self-care
In a busy world, it can be easy to get swept up in work, responsibilities, looking after others, and time to nourish you gets put at the bottom of the pile. It's important to plan time to look after yourself and put back in what life can sometimes take out. This could be simply planning a walk with a friend, booking time to watch a movie or run a hot bubble bath. The beauty of booking a regular exercise class each week means you a have a set time in your routine and it's planned into your schedule.
Connection with your teacher and class
Another important way to boost your mental health is to connect with others. Taking a pilates class gives you the opportunity to connect with your teacher and the others in your class. Spending time with others changes the levels of chemicals in the brain (serotonin, cortisol and endorphins) and can give you a welcome mood boost.
Hazel Commane, January 2021
Hazel holds a BSc in Psychology from the University of Leeds, a Masters in Education from the University of Brighton, is a qualified teacher, a qualified Pilates instructor, holds a certificate in Mindfulness Teaching and can play the saxophone.
Callaghan P. (2004). Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? J Psychiatry Mental Health Nursing. 11:476–483.
Guszkowska M (2004).. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood [in Polish] Psychiatry Poland 38:611–620.
McGonigal, K. (2020) The Joy of Movement. Penguin: Canada
McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey.
McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014.