Treadmills, stair steppers, elliptical trainers—they leave you sweating and give your heart a great workout. But, if you want to reshape your body, you are going to have to work out a little smarter. Let's face it: sometimes we all need to zone out on a stationary bike with headphones and a magazine. But, some experts say the most effective workouts engage the mind, as well as the body.

Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) is a classic mind-body workout created in the 1920's by physical trainer Joseph Pilates. This workout may be the ideal antidote to a tired fitness routine. This method of body conditioning involves stretching and strengthening exercises done on mats and specially designed exercise equipment.

Mind-body Challenge

Even for beginners in great shape, the first Pilates mat class can be a humbling experience. Clare recalls her first class, "I had been teaching fitness classes for 15 years, training teachers, and making videos, and I could not believe how little command I had over my body."

Although I walk and strength train regularly, I found myself struggling in Clare's morning mat class. Cues like "draw abdominals in and up," "press back into mat," and "lengthen the neck" seem to make sense on their own, but in concert, they were more than my body could focus on all at once. The moves are not complicated—Clare's demonstrations were simple and graceful—but they require an attention to our bodies that is unfamiliar to most of us. By working the body's core, including lower back, abdominal and gluteal muscles, the mat exercises challenge areas often neglected by traditional fitness routines.

The machine exercises are even more unfamiliar to many newcomers. Pilates machines can be found at most fully-equipped studios. Machines assist with resistance and support. Proper alignment is critical, so machine routines are generally taught one-on-one. From my first exercise on a machine, I could feel how I had been neglecting a whole dimension of fitness by focusing only on aerobic exercise and weights.

Such renewed body awareness is a vital part of Pilates. For many trainers and students, the lessons are simple: I can change my body with these exercises. And a great workout does not have to hurt.

All Gain, No Pain

Without question, Pilates is a challenging workout, but beginners need not fear injury or excessive stress. The moves are low-impact, and repetitions are few. Over time, they even help correct imbalances created by poor posture and alignment. For this reason, many people actually turn to Pilates for relief from muscular pain.

A review of 3 studies found that Pilates improved function and decreased pain in people with chronic low back pain. The studies did not however, determine which exercises were the most effective.

Barbara discovered Pilates after teaching aerobics classes for a decade. "I was tired of the gym grind," she says. "I wanted to try something new and build strength." She began working with a Pilates trainer twice a week. "I felt taller and leaner from just a few sessions. In 3 months, I totally changed my body." Without altering her healthy diet, she had lost inches, dropped several sizes, and stopped experiencing hip pain that had troubled her in the past.

After undergoing knee surgery from "doing weights wrong for too long," Raoul started working with Barbara. A few months of twice-weekly sessions gave him relief from chronic back pain and helped strengthen his abdominal muscles. "Crunches can only do so much," says Raoul. "But every exercise in Pilates works your center. I can feel the different compartments of my abdominals now."

How does body awareness translate into a fitter, more graceful form? "Most people cannot separate their muscle groups unless they are properly trained," explains Barbara. "They use their hip flexors for abdominal work, or their shoulders to move their arms. But Pilates teaches you to separate movement. That is why dancers look so poised."

Athletic Performance

From ballet to golf, the skills gained through Pilates make other activities easier. "In general, Pilates is more applicable to sports than conventional exercise," says Joan. "Banging out miles on an aerobic machine does not train the body to perform any better."

Specifically, Pilates-based exercises improve athletic performance in several ways, according to Joan.

In activities from skiing to cycling, people fatigue not because they come to the limits of their aerobic capacity, but because their muscles cannot keep pace. By strengthening the body from the core and building out from there, Pilates improves muscular endurance so people can enjoy activities fully and for longer. One study found that 12 weeks of Pilates increased abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance. The exercises require no expensive equipment, skills, and are beneficial for any age group.

As you move through the exercises, you focus on certain aspects of movement. Before long, it will make you very aware of how you move in your day-to-day activities. For example, swinging for a tennis ball is not just a physical movement, but rather a transfer from a focused mind to the body. As you cannot play tennis without mind/body awareness, you cannot do Pilates while tuning out.

Quite simply, Pilates trains you to know where you are in space. Dancers understand this (where is my weight? how is my body placed?) as do professional golfers. The equestrian community has turned to Pilates for its emphasis on centering. These are not connections you are going to make on a treadmill or in spinning class. Athletes, professional and recreational, can benefit from a better understanding of body placement.

In many cases, training causes imbalance. Single arm rotation in tennis, for example, or pushing harder on the dominant leg in cycling, can leave some muscles more developed than others. A Pilates trainer can identify these imbalances and help correct them.

Pilates will also give you better flexibility. This happens as your muscles and joints stretch. This also improves range of motion.

As dancers and boxers cross train with Pilates or ballet, other exercisers can benefit from a varied routine. "I am lucky to play tennis once a week, but I progress, while others at the club who play daily stay at the same level," says Joan. Why? By changing your workout, you learn more about your body, and that information can help you improve.

From Movie Stars to Mainstream

Popular with dancers for decades, Pilates also won devotion from celebrities whose careers depend on having a sculpted body. Athletes are also taking notice as more discover that the technique improves performance and helps keep injuries at bay.

If you are interested in trying Pilates, you can do an online search for classes in your area. The cost for group mat classes really varies depending on the fitness center. Private machine sessions are also an option if you would like one-on-one help. If you would prefer to exercise at home, there are also Pilates DVDs for beginners that guide you through mat exercises.