Find out what Pilates fitness is all about and if it might be right for you.

Pilates is a fitness workout that builds flexibility, strength, and endurance without adding muscle mass by focusing primarily on the abdominal, hip, and back muscles, called the body's "core" muscles. It was created more than 90 years ago by Joseph H. Pilates, a German athlete who devised his own exercise technique after studying yoga, Zen, and the physical training used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Pilates was also a proponent of the mind-body connection and his exercises include focused breathing and mental concentration.

From the very beginning Pilates based many of his exercises on a piece of exercise equipment called "The Reformer," a wooden bench that uses pulleys, springs, and sliding boards to create resistance. Today there are a variety of special machines that may be used in Pilates, including home versions of the Reformer and others, but many Pilates exercises can be done on a floor mat. And you need only minimal Pilates equipment, like a Pilates ring that you hold for certain exercises. With so many Pilates DVDs available, too, the choice is yours — you can take a class at a gym or fitness center or practice it at home with machines, on a mat, or both.

The Benefits of Pilates

The fitness benefits of Pilates include long, firm, flat muscles, a flat tummy, a strong back, and good posture. Additional benefits include:

Improved heart and lung health. Pilates breathing exercises can increase your lung capacity and, although you don't have to break a sweat, you can increase the aerobic part of your exercises to get your heart working harder and improve the flow of oxygen in your blood. Increased balance and flexibility. In addition to toning and strengthening muscles, Pilates also stretches muscles and improves your range of motion for greater flexibility, balance, coordination, and agility. Mental benefits. Because Pilates stresses concentration and focused breathing, it also heightens the mind-body connection, which can help relieve stress and anxiety. Safety. Pilates is a low-impact type of exercise that can be adapted to your own physical condition. Even if you are not in great shape now, you can get started in Pilates. However, discuss your fitness level with your Pilates instructor and avoid any advanced moves until you’re able to accomplish them safely. What to Expect in Pilates Class

A Pilates session usually runs for 60 minutes and may be given as a group class or as individual instruction. Though fitness clubs and gyms offer classes, consider a specialized Pilates studio, especially if you want one-on-one instruction.

Pilates fitness classes may involve workouts done on exercise machines or on floor mats and a series of very precise low-impact, range-of-motion exercises. You should wear comfortable clothing, similar to what you would wear for aerobics or yoga. Pilates is usually done without shoes.

Be sure to check the credentials of a Pilates teacher before signing up, and ask about the instructor's training and experience. Pilates should be taught by certified instructors who have gone through hundreds of hours of training and passed a written and practical test. The Pilates Method Alliance is an organization that can help you find a certified Pilates instructor and classes near you.

If you have any significant health conditions you should check with your doctor before starting any exercise program, including Pilates. Also, let your Pilates instructor know about any physical limitations you may have. Certified Pilates instructors can often customize a Pilates fitness program to meet your special needs.

Finding Pilates Equipment

There are a variety of manufacturers of equipment and instructional videos in the Pilates industry. Most have Web sites that allow you to investigate their offerings. Among the most established companies are:

Balanced Body. Based in Sacramento, Calif., Balanced Body began designing contemporary versions of the Reformer in the 1970s. Today, it offers a line of equipment, accessories, and videos, and the Balanced Body University to train instructors. Stott Pilates. Stott Pilates, based in Canada, offers a line of home and commercial equipment, from mats and exercise balls to Reformers, as well as DVDs. The company has a Toronto Pilates studio and offers training for instructors at various locations. Winsor Pilates. Created by Los Angeles-based Pilates instructor Mari Winsor, this system of Pilates, available on DVD, involves a core group of exercises that are designed to create and tone long muscles. Although Pilates has become extremely popular in recent years, it’s far from being just another fitness trend. With a long history dating back to its namesake creator, Pilates is an effective fitness option that develops strength — a fitness indicator women often overlook — along with many other benefits.