Pilates Promoter Praises Exercise

Monday, October 18th 2004, 10:33 am
By: News On 6

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) _ She's often seen in a ubiquitous infomercial peddling Pilates videos, but Mari Winsor's lean and sinewy body may be the best walking advertisement of the exercise phenomenon.

The 54-year-old former dancer credits Pilates with restoring her body after a bone-breaking motorcycle accident and giving her the energy to keep up with a busy schedule training famous clients. They've included Dustin Hoffman, Debbie Allen and Melanie Griffith, who credited Pilates with giving her the stamina for her demanding Broadway role in the musical ``Chicago.''

``It's magic,'' Winsor gushes during a recent interview at one of her three Los Angeles studios. ``It's kept this body together for so long.''

In 2 1/2 years, Winsor has sold more than 16 million Pilates videos and DVDs, according to distributor Guthy-Renker, making her the most visible promoter of the discipline introduced in the 1920s by German boxer Joseph Pilates. He developed the system while at a British internment camp during World War I and it was designed to help infirmary patients recover.

The Pilates method concentrates on developing muscles in the middle of the body, often called ``the powerhouse,'' through controlled stretching and strengthening movements coupled with focused breathing patterns. The exercises, which can be done on a mat or on specially designed equipment, were adopted by dancers, athletes and celebrities before hitting the mainstream about a decade ago.

Today, an estimated 9 million people practice Pilates compared with about 2.5 million in 2001, according to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Its rapid rise in popularity has spawned Pilates Style magazine, which debuted this fall, a slew of books and videos and many courses taught in gyms, doctors' offices and health food stores.

``It's not a workout, but a way of life,'' Winsor said. ``It improves posture, releases stress because it forces you to focus on the movements and gives you strength and flexibility as you get older. The deep breathing, the mind-body connection _ it's all a positive ball.''

A professional dancer, Winsor apprenticed with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York and later learned Pilates from Romana Kryzanowska, one of a few living students of Joseph Pilates.

Winsor experienced Pilates' healing value after getting thrown off a motorcycle about 10 years ago.

``A deer jumped out and I don't remember what happened next, but 15 minutes later I woke up lying on the side of the road, staring into the eyes of a dead deer,'' she recalled. The accident broke six ribs and her collar bone, crushed a finger and punctured a lung.

``It took me four months to recover, and the doctor told me 'You can't ever dance again.' I said 'Oh really?''' Winsor said, raising an eyebrow.

``I snuck Pilates in during the time I underwent physical therapy, and my doctor was impressed by how fast I was healing.''

Winsor no longer dances professionally but takes ballet lessons, practices yoga and spends at least 20 minutes a day doing a series of Pilates movements she calls ``dynamic sequencing.''

She believes aging baby boomers are drawn to Pilates, yoga and other low-impact exercises because they need ``something gentle on the joints'' after years of following fitness fads.

She warned that beginners should learn about the technique and philosophy before they convert. The once-strict Pilates method has been diluted by a growing number of unqualified instructors trying to blend it with yoga or martial arts, she said, leaving people vulnerable to injuries and an ineffective workout.

An estimated 13,000 instructors are teaching Pilates, but only a quarter of them are adequately trained, estimated Kevin Bowen, president of the nonprofit Pilates Method Alliance. The Miami-based association is working to create a national certification test for trainers.

``There's no regulation for certifying instructors, and as a result you have a lot of people who try it and get injured,'' said Bowen, who is also an instructor. ``Now we see Pilates Tai-Chi, Bowflex Pilates, Aqualates. People are claiming to offer the best of both worlds. ... The gimmicks become almost ridiculous.''

Winsor said a fusion course is fine, but an instructor should be adequately trained in Pilates and the other exercise techniques they claim to teach.

``Everybody has the right to fuse it so it can be fun and engaging,'' she said. ``To get people moving is the most important goal, but people should do it safely. It can be safe, and it can give you great results if you stick to it.''