Fitness: Punishment Is Passe

London discovers that gentler exercise can work, too

An avid squash and tennis player, Piers Petrie, a 44-year-old chartered surveyor in London, is no stranger to exercise. But when a chronic back injury flared up earlier this year, a colleague suggested a new kind of workout, the Pilates Method. Pilates focuses on breathing, controlled muscle movements, and the development of strong abdominals to improve posture and muscle tone. After six months of weekly private sessions, Petrie's injury has dramatically improved. "Now when I miss a class, I really feel as if I need to go back," he says.

Add Petrie to the ranks of exercise buffs who are finding alternative ways to stay fit and relieve stress and chronic pain. Pilates dates back to 1926, when it was created in New York by German physical trainer Joseph Pilates. Favored by dancers and performing artists in the U.S., the exercise method is just starting to take off in Europe. "There's been a move away from the macho aerobics that were popular in the 1980s, where it was all about sweating and punishing yourself," says Sian Williams, co-owner of Pilates Off the Square Ltd., an exercise studio in central London. "Today, people want a more holistic approach to health and fitness." Pilates Off the Square can be reached at 44-171-935-8505.

More London gyms and health clubs are broadening their offerings to include fitness regimes such as Pilates and yoga. Others are getting in on the act, too: Farmacia, a new retail chain in London that describes itself as an "urban pharmacy," offers fitness consultations, massages, and osteopathic treatments besides selling medicines, vitamins, and cosmetics. Farmacia ( can be reached at 44-171-831-0830.

Pilates is probably the hottest new program to reach London--even though at first glance, students look like they're barely doing anything. In a typical class, 10 students lie on mats while a teacher guides them through a series of controlled, often barely visible muscular movements.

But most students agree the classes are extremely challenging and can produce noticeable improvements after as few as 10 classes. "People mistakenly think it's the no-sweat way to a great body," Williams says. "It's not aerobic, but you still have to work hard." More advanced students generally work in smaller groups of four to five on specially designed Pilates exercise equipment. Many Pilates instructors will also give private lessons in clients' homes, throughout Britain.

POSTURE REPROGRAMMING. Another regime gaining in popularity with stressed-out executives in London is the Alexander Technique. Australian actor F.M. Alexander developed it in the late 1890s to overcome persistent voice loss. By examining his own movements while doing everything from reciting to sitting and standing, he discovered that changing these habits could not only restore his voice but improve ailments such as back and neck strain.

Based on his findings, instructors work individually with students, helping them improve their posture and learn to release tense muscles. Alexander Technique in the City, a center located in the heart of London's financial district (telephone: 44-171-739-0200), draws lawyers and financial types looking for relief from their high-stress jobs, teacher Sabrina Kiefer says. Most clients say they feel improvement after only a few sessions.

Neither Pilates nor the Alexander Technique come cheap, however. A 40-minute Alexander session can cost as much as $65. A 90-minute workout on Pilates equipment as part of a class is $30. A private, hour-long instruction on equipment use runs around $55. Still, as devotees will attest, good health is priceless.

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