Beware the bogus Pilates trainer

Ageless movie stars swear by it, GPs recommend it to pregnant women, fitness magazines offer do-it-yourself work-outs and, if you profess to having backache, someone at the watercooler is bound to suggest it. Pilates.

The very word conjures up images of leotard-clad women stretching to the chimes of a global ethnic soundtrack.
Developed early in the 20th century by gymnast Joseph Pilates, the low-impact training method quickly gained favour with dancers in New York and continued to grow in the dance community.

In the past 10 years, the training method has gone from obscure home-studio practice to fitness buzzword. But is your Pilates instructor really qualified to fiddle with your posture?

Some instructors say consumers could be taking a risk every time they perform a swan dive and that it’s time to regulate the industry. There are more than 1 000 private Pilates instructors in South Africa, and that doesn’t even count those teaching at the major gyms.

Yet those who train Pilates instructors are under no obligation to adhere to international standards or be accredited by the Tourism, Hospitality and Sport Education Training Authority (Theta). The fitness sector itself is unregulated, with legislation still in the discussion stages.

Pilates instructor Anita Vos said it was a ‘buyer beware situation” in South Africa and the onus was on the client to check a trainer’s credentials. ‘You have someone who has a back injury who wants to do Pilates and [they] land up with someone who’s looked at a video and has called themselves an instructor.

It’s not common but it’s a risk,” said Vos, who runs, a website that helps consumers find certified instructors. ‘People should look for a national qualification that’s registered,” said Paul Laemmle, head of special projects at the Exercise Teachers’ Academy.

‘Failing that, look at the instructor’s CV, see if they have years of experience, a good reputation and clients who back them.” But attempts by Theta to standardise qualifications have been met with objections from Pilates purists, who believe they are not rigorous enough to protect the public and that a better standard is needed.

Ebrahim Boomgard, education and training quality assurance manager for Theta, defended the current standards, which put Pilates instructors in the same category as fitness instructors.

‘The skills remain the same but the context is different. You’re teaching people to do a set of exercises and to use equipment,” he said. But those passionate about Pilates say it’s more than a simple fitness routine and can’t be equated with group classes like aerobics.

‘Pilates sits between exercise and rehabilitation. Most people come to Pilates through rehabilitation — We want Theta to recognise the rehabilitation uses of Pilates,” said instructor Yasmin Lambat, who gets 90% of her clients through referrals from clinicians such as physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons.

‘All we’re looking for is an accreditation process to protect the general public,” she said. Craig Smith, a physiotherapist and Pilates trainer who also chairs the Sports Physiotherapy Group, said that, with the popularity of Pilates, it was important to ask whether it was becoming a discipline that needed to be regulated separately from fitness.

‘Pilates is operating in a grey area. It straddles two models—training and rehabilitation. We need to decide if it’s going to be one or the other, or both,” he said. But that decision, he said, lay with the authorities.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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