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  • Writer's pictureElle

Pilates for weight loss: Fact or fiction?

An interview with Raphael Bender, Pilates trainer, Exercise Physiologist, and CEO of Breathe Education.


Raphael Bender

‘Will Pilates help me to lose weight?’ This is a question I often get asked. Originally I was going to write about this and include references to the interview I conducted with Raphael Bender, but honestly, the interview is too good not to post as it is.


Raphael Bender is the CEO of Breathe Education, where I trained to be a Pilates instructor. He is also an accredited Exercise Physiologist, a Pilates trainer himself, and host of the Pilates Elephants podcast, which aims to debunk myths about Pilates and provide science-based tools for industry professionals to improve.


His reputation for employing an evidence-based approach to the practice of Pilates precedes him. He is well-known globally for what he does because of how well he does it, and I am very grateful to him for affording me his time for a discussion on this topic.


So here it is, enjoy.



Pilates for weight loss: Fact or fiction?


Pilates by itself will have minimal effect on weight loss. BUT when you lose weight by adjusting your diet, (which is going to determine about 90% of your success – abs are made in the kitchen) doing Pilates (or any resistance training) will enable you to lose fat without losing muscle.


Pilates by itself will have minimal effect on weight loss.

So, if you want to lose fat and maintain or increase your muscle, yes you should do Pilates (or any form of resistance training) as PART of your weight loss strategy.



Why?


All weight loss programs succeed by creating a caloric deficit – you have to burn more calories than you consume.


Pilates simply doesn’t burn enough calories to make a meaningful difference to weight loss. It will contribute, very slightly, to increasing your energy expenditure, but the effect will be small.


Plus, there’s what’s called compensation – when you burn more calories through exercise we tend to unconsciously move less during the day; we fidget less, we sit more slumped. And we burn fewer calories, in compensation for the increased calories we burned in exercise.


All weight loss programs succeed by creating a caloric deficit.

We don’t completely offset the extra calories from exercise, but a significant portion of them – around 18% in short-term exercise studies, rising to 84% in studies lasting two years or more (PMID: 25988763).


The most effective way to create a caloric deficit is to reduce how many calories you eat. The most important role of exercise is to preserve your muscle mass whilst you are in a caloric deficit.


The most important role of exercise is to preserve your muscle mass whilst you are in a caloric deficit.


What are you basing your opinion on? Are there any references you can share?


A 2023 systematic review and meta analysis of diet and exercise interventions for weight loss in people near retirement age (PMID: 37028708) found:


“A body mass or waist circumference decrease was achieved with all interventions except aerobic training/resistance training alone.”


And:


“Energy restriction alone was less effective and tended to decrease muscle mass. Muscle mass was only significantly increased with mixed exercise.”



What would you say is the most logical and straightforward method for the reduction of weight in general?


  • Reduce your caloric intake by about 25%

  • Eat 2g of protein per kg of your goal body weight per day

  • Do some kind of resistance training (e.g. Pilates).


The caloric reduction causes you to lose weight, the high protein helps you feel full, the resistance training preserves your muscle mass so you lose only fat (PMID: 37028708).



Pilates is good for many things, we know that. But based on your knowledge, was weight loss ever part of the original master plan?


Joseph Pilates doesn’t talk about weight loss in either of his books, that’s not what the exercises are for. They are for building strength and function so people can enjoy their day to day activities fully.


It’s just a happy chance that Pilates can be helpful in losing fat whilst maintaining or building muscle.


Joseph Pilates doesn’t talk about weight loss in either of his books, that’s not what the exercises are for.


What contexts, if any, would you say Pilates would work as a main propellant for weight loss?


Exercise influences energy expenditure. We already talked about that in relation to the compensation effect that happens when we do more exercise – we move less through the day and burn fewer calories as a result.


Exercise may help to regulate hunger and bring eating more in line with energy expenditure (PMID: 34869516).


So although eating less calories is probably the most effective strategy to lose weight, exercising can make it easier to eat fewer calories. Thus indirectly contributing significantly to weight loss.



On the topic of Pilates being a low impact form of movement, can you elaborate on the difference between low and high intensity exercise and how this difference may affect caloric expenditure in an average person?


A 2012 systematic review found that “there is currently poor empirical quantitative evidence indicating a positive effect of Pilates exercises on body composition.” (PMID: 22196436)


The number of calories burned in Pilates is probably not an important factor in weight loss, as per above. It’s more likely that Pilates contributes to effective body recomposition by:

  1. Maintaining or improving muscle mass whilst losing fat

  2. Regulating appetite and reducing overconsumption of calories.


The best strategy for weight loss is to think of it as a marathon not a sprint. Adopt new habits that you can sustain for the long-term, rather than looking for a quick fix. I know it’s alluring to “lose 10kg in 10 weeks” and it is possible. But if you do it by pushing yourself to do things you don’t enjoy, and by restricting things you do enjoy, you’re very likely to rebound and put the weight back on again.


Mild, sustainable habit change over the long-term is the best strategy for long-term success.


If you enjoy Pilates more than high intensity exercise, Pilates is a better choice regardless of caloric expenditure, because you’re more likely to stick with it, and that’s what determines long-term success.



Do you think altering the intent of a Pilates class (for weight loss for example) can shift too far away from the traditional origins of the practice and therefore blur the lines between what Pilates is all about and creative variations on the theme? Is this an issue in your opinion, or not?


I don’t think it matters what you do in the Pilates class, as long as you’re strengthening the muscles, you will preserve or increase muscle mass during weight loss. Aside from that, which exercises you do, or how you do them won’t influence weight loss one way or the other.


My company, Breathe Education, teaches the original Contrology method, as well as modern fitness based reformer Pilates. I think both have their place in our industry.


Which exercises you do, or how you do them won’t influence weight loss one way or the other.

All industries evolve, and Pilates is no exception, it has evolved constantly since Joseph first released his book in 1945, and it continues to evolve. I look forward to where the industry is going.



What do you wish I would have asked you in this interview, and can you then answer it?


Weight loss is very simple and it CAN be easy, if you can create an environment where it’s easy for you to succeed in regulating your caloric intake. My top tips for effective weight loss are:

  1. Don’t go hungry.

    1. Eat a LOT of food, but not many calories (eat lots of vegetables, berries, and salads that are bulky but not calorie dense).

    2. Eat a lot of protein (it makes you feel full). Eat 2g of protein per kg of your goal body weight per day. E.g. If your goal weight is 60kg, eat 120g protein per day.

    3. Eat at least 20g of protein with every meal and snack.

  2. Find low calorie treats you enjoy.

    1. Use stevia or other zero calorie sweetener.

    2. PB2 peanut butter powder has 80% fewer calories than peanut butter but tastes just as good in smoothies.

    3. Have lots of tasty low calorie foods easy to hand e.g. berries, fruits, low fat yogurt.

  3. Remove temptation.

    1. Don’t have high calorie foods in the house. Throw them out.

    2. If you eat out, don’t arrive at the restaurant hungry, have a high bulk, low calorie snack or meal beforehand eg. a bowl of vegetables or berries.

  4. Work out at least 3 times a week. Pilates is a fantastic way to strengthen your whole body and will contribute to appetite control and maintaining muscle whilst you lose fat.

  5. Weigh yourself every day, and record it.

    1. Don’t pay attention to daily fluctuations, they are normal, and probably a result of different hydration and the amount of food you ate at your last meal.

    2. Look at the WEEKLY average of your weight to see if you’re heading in the right direction. Then adjust your diet accordingly.

    3. Aim for 0.5-1kg reduction per week.


Pilates is a fantastic way to strengthen your whole body and will contribute to appetite control and maintaining muscle whilst you lose fat.

So there you have it, in the most logical and straightforward way I think I've heard. Don't buy into the jargon. As Raphael said, "it CAN be easy", but you need to accept the fact that weight can really only be lost by what you eat more than anything else.


If you love Pilates, keep doing Pilates. It will benefit you in more ways than one. If your goal is weight loss, stop looking to quick fixes and alternate realities. Save this post, or the parts that stood out for you, and refer to them when you spiral and forget the simple and refreshing logic – I know I will.


I’d like to thank Raphael for his time and for sharing his expertise on this topic.


If you have any questions or if you’d like information on how to get involved in a Pilates class, contact me at hello@pilateswithelle.com.au.



Elle



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