Pilates: The Fitness Trend Started in an Internment Camp


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.

Where in the U.S. People Aren't Getting Enough Exercise, Mapped

The U.S. is a notoriously sedentary country. A huge portion of the population doesn't meet the government's recommendations for physical activity, and that can have some serious ramifications for public health. But not everyone is equally sedentary. Physical activity rates can vary significantly from state to state, as a CDC report spotted by Thrillist illustrates.

The U.S. government currently recommends that adults squeeze in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, plus two days a week of "muscle strengthening activities" like weight lifting or calisthenics. Across the board, the number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 who actually meet that recommendation hovers at around 23 percent, but some states are much more physically active than others. (Men were also more likely to meet the recommendation than women, and working people were more likely than non-working people to get the recommended amounts of exercise.) The map below draws on data from the 2010 to 2015 National Health Interview Surveys, part of which included questions about exercise habits.

A color-coded map of activity rates in the U.S. with active states in blue and inactive states in red
Age-adjusted percentages of adults aged 18–64 who met federal guidelines for physical activity from 2010-2015
National Center of Health Statistics

Some of the states with the highest rates of exercise are ones we already associate with health and outdoor activity. California, for instance, scores relatively high, with 24 percent of adults meeting the guidelines. Colorado has the highest percentage, at 32.5 percent. Meanwhile, the South, a region already associated with high rates of obesity and poor public health, has some of the lowest activity rates, including 13.5 percent in Mississippi.

It's not just a matter of region, though. Much of the Midwest, including Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, is at or slightly above the national average, while South Dakota is far below average. New York has a very low activity rate (18.9 percent) while next door, Pennsylvania has a much higher rate of 25.6 percent.

Even in more active states, these numbers may look exceedingly low. If—at the very best—less than a third of adults get enough exercise, that's bad news. But take a few caveats into account before you go judging the entire country as a bunch of couch potatoes. These are broad recommendations, and don't necessarily reflect everyone's health needs; people who are injured, disabled, or chronically ill, for example, aren't going to be able to go for hour-long runs every week, and they shouldn't.

Plus, there are some gaps in this data. The survey relates specifically to leisure time exercise, meaning that it can't reflect the full activity levels of people who have physically demanding jobs. If you're a door-to-door canvasser who walks all day, a yoga teacher, or a UPS driver who lugs boxes around, the bulk of your physical activity might not happen in your down time, but that doesn't mean you're not exercising. Commute time doesn't count as leisure, either, so the results don't factor in the exercise you might get if you bike or walk to work each day.

That said, there is plenty of other evidence that Americans spend too much time in their cars and in front of screens and not enough time moving. The problem is just much worse in Indiana than in Colorado.

[h/t Thrillist]

More Than 75 Percent of Americans Don't Exercise Enough

If you're like the majority of Americans, you're probably not exercising enough. According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported by Fortune, less than a quarter of U.S. adults met the recommended amount of weekly aerobic and muscle-building activity between 2010 and 2015 [PDF].

The leisure exercise guidelines the CDC referenced were set in 2008: They suggest that adults complete at least 150 minutes of "moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity" a week, 75 minutes of "vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity," or a mix of the above. Just 22.9 percent of adults ages 18 to 64 met this criteria. For men, the national average was 27.2 percent, and for women, it was 18.7 percent.

The CDC study, which was released June 28, also broke down exercise habits by state. Colorado came in as the most active state, with 32.5 percent of residents meeting the exercise standards—nearly 10 percent more than the national average. People in Mississippi were the least likely to work out enough, with the average there coming out to just 13.5 percent.

Map of how much people exercise.

While the CDC's study only looked at leisure exercise, it's possible the results would have been different if it had also looked at the physical labor we do for our jobs, or just the walks we take on our commutes. The CDC points out that people with physically demanding jobs or those who bike or walk to get around may be less likely to exercise in their free time, even if they're technically more active overall than the people who do.

No matter how you compare to the CDC's standards, it never hurts to find room in your schedule for more exercise. Not only does working out have physical health benefits, but it can improve your mental health as well by boosting your energy and helping you fight stress. Here are some tips for creating a fitness routine if you don't have one already.

[h/t Fortune]


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