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Pilates: The Fitness Trend Started in an Internment Camp

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You couldn’t be blamed for hearing the word “Pilates” and thinking about super-fit starlets and medieval-looking machines like the Reformer. But the popular fitness system didn’t begin in a boardroom or a gym. In fact, Pilates has its roots in a World War I internment camp on a British island.

After World War I broke out, the British government feared that German men between 17 and 42 years of age would become German soldiers if they were deported. So they were locked up in camps all over Britain, including, starting in 1914, at a camp in a village on the Isle of Man known as Knockaloe. Knockaloe would eventually host over 23,000 internees, becoming the British Isles’ largest internment camp—so big that it required its own railroad.

But things weren’t so great at the overcrowded Knockaloe, where inmates began to succumb to the pressure of their ostracism and imprisonment. The camp inspector dubbed their behavior—which we now know was depression—barbed-wire disease.” 

One of the inmates at Knockaloe was a German boxer, athlete, and all-around health nut who was working for a British circus when he was imprisoned. He was strongly influenced by Germany’s physical culture movement, which advocated exercise as a way to strengthen the body and connect the individual to others. His name was Joseph Pilates, and he found unexpected purpose in the camps.

Pilates had been a sickly child, but he managed to rehabilitate himself through exercise and conditioning. So when he saw the condition of his fellow inmates, many of whom were bedridden and hospitalized, it sparked an idea. He began to teach his fellow internees to work out.

As he watched the progress of his bedridden countrymen, Pilates started to wonder if he could apply the fluid stretching movements he had observed in animals to humans who were incapacitated. He took straps, bunk bed springs, and other parts and began to experiment with crude homemade fitness machines that let people work out even when they were in bed. The machine would eventually be adapted into what is now called the Pilates Cadillac, a bunk-like apparatus with springs, bars, and a bed-like surface.

In 1918, influenza swept through Great Britain and the camp. None of Pilates's “trainees” died from the disease—an accomplishment he attributed to what he was starting to think of as his method. By the time Pilates was released later that year, he was passionate about his new technique. He began to teach it to Germans, contributing to a new movement called “Lebensreform” (life reform) that encouraged a return to nature and respect for the body.

But Pilates’ return to Germany didn’t last long. Though he later claimed that he escaped Germany due to pressure to teach his methods to the army, others note that he went to the United States in part to look into patenting one of his fitness devices. In America, he found a rabid audience for his new fitness method, which he first called “Contrology” and later renamed the Pilates Technique.

Almost a century later, Pilates is seen as the province of yoga pants-wearing yuppies and green-juice-guzzling fitness freaks. It’s come a long way from the bunks of a British internment camp—Pilates is now big business, generating nearly $7 billion of revenue in 2012 alone.

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Animals
Move Over, Goat Yoga: Alpaca Dance Classes Have Arrived
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A surprising number of people want to exercise alongside farm animals. Multiple farms across the U.S. offer yoga with goats, a livestock twist on the trend of doing yoga with cats. And in Canada, you can now learn to dance with alpacas, according to Travel + Leisure.

Anola, Manitoba's 313 Farms launched its all-ages AlpacaZone Dance and Fitness classes this summer, offering hip-hop, barre, pilates, and cardio classes for six weekends.

Sadly, the alpacas aren’t teaching the dances. But the classes do take place outdoors among the merry camelids, who are free to wander into your choreography at any time. Taking a water break during class is so passé; better to take an alpaca-petting break. After class, you get a meet-and-greet with the animals, giving you even more time to pal around. (Take note: One of the alpacas reportedly loves kisses.)

Two adults and several children dance in the midst of an alpaca pasture.
Courtesy 313 Farms

313 Farms owner Ann Patman told Travel + Leisure that she was inspired to start the alpaca dance program when a nearby farm started offering a popular goat yoga series. Patman, a Detroit native who named her farm after her hometown’s area code, had previously worked at a dance studio.

The registration for classes like the hip-hop focused “Poppin’ Pacas” and “Barn Barre” costs a low $10 pre-sale, or $15 the day of. The AlpacaZone classes end on August 19, but the owners may offer more because of high demand. Sounds like it's time for a little alpaca-exercise-induced road trip to rural Canada.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Live Smarter
Researchers Say You’re Exercising More Than You Think
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They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. If the thought of a thousand-mile journey makes you tired, we've got some great news for you: You've probably already completed one.* A new study published in the journal Health Psychology [PDF] finds that people underestimate the amount of exercise they're getting—and that this underestimation could be harmful.

Psychologists at Stanford University pulled data on 61,141 American adults from two huge studies conducted in the 1990s and the early 2000s: the National Health Interview Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants answered questionnaires about their lifestyles, health, and exercise habits, and some wore accelerometers to track their movement. Everybody was asked one key question: "Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?"

The researchers then tapped into the National Death Index through 2011 to find out which of the participants were still alive 10 to 20 years later.

Combining these three studies yielded two interesting facts. First, that many participants believed themselves to be less active than they actually were. Second, and more surprisingly, they found that people who rated themselves as "less active" were more likely to die—even when their actual activity rates told a different story. The reverse was also true: People who overestimated their exercise had lower mortality rates.

There are many reasons this could be the case. Depression and other mental illnesses can certainly influence both our self-perception and our overall health. The researchers attempted to control for this variable by checking participants' stress levels and asking if they'd seen a mental health professional in the last year. But not everybody who needs help can get it, and many people could have slipped through the cracks.

Paper authors Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum have a different hypothesis. They say our beliefs about exercise could actually affect our risk of death. "Placebo effects are very robust in medicine," Crum said in a statement. "It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well."

The data suggest that our ideas about exercise and exercise itself are two very different things. If all your friends are marathoners and mountain climbers, you might feel like a sloth—even if you regularly spend your lunch hour in yoga class.

Crum and Zahrt say we could all benefit from relaxing our definition of "exercise."

"Many people think that the only healthy physical activity is vigorous exercise in a gym or on a track," Zahrt told Mental Floss in an email. "They underestimate the importance of just walking to the store, taking the stairs, cleaning the house, or carrying the kids."
 
*The average American takes about 5000 steps per day, or roughly 2.5 miles. At that pace, it would take just a little over a year to walk 1000 miles.

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