Woman breathing

‘Breathing is our link between our conscious and unconscious system.’ (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Exercise and movement have long been touted as helpful techniques to improve your mental health.

Everybody’s mental health is different, and depending on how you’re feeling, it may be that a combination of therapy, medication and exercise could improve your condition – and the best course of action is to speak with your GP if you are concerned.

But movement, and specifically Pilates, could be a useful tool for helping tackle some of your anxiety symptoms.

Helen O’Leary, a physio-led Pilates instructor and clinical director at Complete Pilates explains why: 

‘Joseph Pilates invented Pilates with three principles in mind; whole-body health, whole-body commitment and breath. The idea is that this practice encompassed mind-body-spirit,’ she says.

‘Over the years, this practice has developed and changed so that it can be used for people with injuries, illnesses or who are fit and well. However, the guiding principles remain.’

Helen says Pilates is particularly good because of those founding principles.

‘Breathing is our link between our conscious and unconscious system,’ she explains.

‘If you are suffering from anxiety or stress, often your breathing is faster and shallower. By breathing slowly and deeply, you activate the parasympathetic system by stimulating the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from your head, through the neck and chest to your colon.

‘It is designed to activate your relaxation response, reduce your heart-rate/blood pressure and calm you down. This means it lowers your stress levels.

‘Pilates requires a lot of concentration. This often means people get through the session and feel they have had a mental workout as well. It forces you to focus on one thing which is your body. You effectively clear your mind of other distractions.’

How to use Pilates to reduce anxiety

Find an instructor you can relate to
If you aren’t into shouting spin classes try finding a class where there are fewer people in it and with an instructor who makes you laugh!

Make sure to set yourself up for success
Pilates can be really hard if you want it to be! If you are starting from a lower level maybe invest in some 1:1s so that the instructor can help you feel positive about your movement before moving into group classes.

You can take a break
If you are in a group class and you are struggling, go back to one of the moves you found easier. The aim is to keep moving.

Go with a friend
It is always nice to have someone else in the class who has no idea what they are doing who you can grab a coffee with afterwards and laugh about the moves you just did.

Listen to your body
Pilates epitomises mind-body connection. If something doesn’t feel good, it probably isn’t right for you right now.

It doesn’t always have to hurt
You can work your muscles without feeling like you have just killed them. Going back to basics is a great way for you to listen to what your body really wants and needs so maybe try an easier class than you think

Turn your phone off
Make sure it doesn’t go off in the studio – better yet leave it at home. This gives you time to concentrate on yourself.

Give yourself time
Remember, it takes around four weeks for your body to make a change, 6-8 weeks for you to build baseline strength and 12 weeks to make a difference and for everyone else to see it. Be patient with yourself and your body.

Helen O’Leary, Complete Pilates

She adds that learning a new task has been scientifically shown to help brain health.

‘So, if you haven’t done Pilates before, you get the benefits of everything that comes with exercise, everything that comes with concentration and you begin to listen to your mind-body.’

Helen adds more people have started to come to her for help with pain and anxiety.

‘A lot of people who have chronic pain have been struggling to manage their symptoms and a lot of people are feeling disconnected,’ she says.

‘Being in the studio, even though it is a 1:1, allows people to interact with others. It gives structure to their day and the ability to hear other voices and other people laughing.

‘This open environment generally makes people feel better. If you are happier, you generally control your pain better and feel more connected with yourself and others.’

Helen has shared nine simple Pilates moves that could help to reduce anxiety and improve your mental health:


Rotation is a great way of making yourself feel more open so trying something like slow book openings and breathing into your rib cage whilst you’re in the stretch.

This exercise is also a great opportunity to move your spine and release the tension you may have been holding in your upper back and shoulders.


Learning how to breathe slowly and deeply in lots of different positions is a great start.

Try making your exhale breath a little longer than your inhale and breathe into your stomach.

You can try inhaling through your mouth and exhaling through your mouth, keeping your lips soft and almost sighing



Keep your hip bones level. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Put your feet on a step so that you have more range.

Try to keep your shoulder blades resting on the floor as you move through. 

Try to keep your hip bones level. Knowing your pelvic clock will help with this. If you feel it in your back, see if you can tilt your pelvis towards 12 a little more.

Cat cow

cat cow

This movement should be gentle and smooth. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Keep the weight on your legs rather than wrists directly underneath you, this will protect your wrists.

Your head is part of your spine so needs to follow it.

Try to avoid letting hang down completely and hinging to look high towards the sky. Instead, move your gaze gently and try to keep length in the back of your neck.



Keep your feet on the floor. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Feeling muscles working is great to feel like you are doing something. Dart makes you feel more open and you will feel lots working. there should be no pinch in your lower back.

Keeping your knees really straight and reaching your feet away from you will activate the entire front of your body. This will give you support.

Try to keep those feet on the floor though.



The slower the better. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Remember to keep breathing. Try doing some really slowly and then speed up. Try to keep up and off the floor as you rotate.

By keeping your chin in the centre, you will make sure you are rotating your ribs around your spine rather than just moving your shoulders.

McConnell squat

McConnell Squat

Focus on sticking out your bum. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Great if you want to feel your glutes.

It is really tempting for the first movement to be bend your knee and feel it go over your toes.

Try instead to break at the hips, like you are trying to push someone over with your bottom. This will move the thigh bone rather than the shin and immediately load your glute more.

Remember your pelvic clock please link to pelvic clock exercise video page if you are unsure.



Keep your spine aligned. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

Take the movement really slowly and even try a hold when you are extended. this will challenge your balance and stability. 

Our spine has three natural curves in it and you want to keep those when you are doing this exercise. Try not to sag in the middle as you are moving. This way you will work those abs more.

Sumo squat

sumo squat

Get low. (Picture: Complete Pilates)

This is really easy to add weights to as well and great for opening the hips.

When you sink down into the squat, you need to widen your sit bones and relax your glutes a bit. This is particularly important if you suffer from lower back pain. This way you allow your pelvic floor to fully stretch and not grip around your coccyx. It will also help your hip range.

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