I swapped my strength training with this for a month — and it made me a happier person

A photo of Pamela Reif doing a side plank with leg raise
(Image credit: YouTube/Pamela Reif)

I’m a big believer in finding the types of exercise that stop exercise from feeling like a chore. Put me in a Pilates class or send me on an easy run along the river, and I’ll love (pretty much) every second. Put me in a HIIT class with flashing red strobe lights and a screaming instructor, and I’ll be hunting for the fire exit before I've started my watch. 

For January, I’ve swapped all of my strength training with Pilates — and it made me a much happier, calmer person. As a runner, I often fit strength training into my routine to help me get faster and run stronger, but I dread the weight sessions, which feels like another thing I have to fit into an already busy schedule. Instead, I put my gym membership on pause, dug out my Pilates ball, and unrolled my yoga mat (we’ve found the best yoga mats for home workouts here) for a month of Pilates sessions. 

I must add, I’m not a complete newbie to Pilates. Pre-pandemic I went on a week-long intensive reformer Pilates retreat in Thailand, but I haven’t practiced much since, so was definitely a little rusty when I set out on my quest. I did five 30-minute Pilates sessions a week and found these on YouTube (take a look at this 30-minute Pilates class here) or on Lilly Sabri’s Lean app, which tops our list of the best workout apps to download right now. All of the classes could easily be done from home, although some required a Pilates ball, or a resistance band (take a look at the best resistance bands for working out from home here). 

Four weeks later, here’s what I learned: 

My core wasn’t as strong as I thought it was 

Being a fitness editor, I thought my core strength was ok — pre Christmas, I ran my fourth marathon, and I spend a lot of time testing the best ab workouts as part of my job. A week into my Pilates month, I realized I had been dreaming. The deep burn I felt in my core after one particular ab session using the Pilates ball under my pelvis told me I’d been working muscles I hadn’t targeted in a while. 

Of course, strong abs isn’t just an aesthetic goal. Having a strong core can help you run faster, lift heavier, and improve your posture. I’ve still been running during January, and although I haven’t noticed my speed increase, I have found that the regular core work has reminded me to engage my core as I run. 

Pilates can give you DOMS  

If you thought DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) was something reserved for gym-goers, think again. Sure, my legs didn’t ache as much as they did after a heavy weight session, but the DOMS was still there after one of my more intense Pilates workouts. 

The goal of Pilates is to sculpt and tone strong muscles without the bulk — think a dancers body, super strong, but lean. I definitely felt I was working hard, despite not really breaking a sweat, or burning huge amounts of calories during the classes themselves. 

I felt calmer 

As someone who has suffered from poor mental health, I work out as much for my mental health as I do for my physical health. January is a long, dark month for many, and I found real joy in the mind-body connection involved in the Pilates classes. I also loved that I could do them from my spare bedroom, in the dark, before the rest of my house had gotten up, and I definitely felt happier and calmer than I did on days when I was rushing to the gym. 

I’ve not been as happy with my body for a long time  

Another surprise I wasn’t expecting — after four weeks, I started noticing changes in my body. Having altered nothing in my diet or running routine, after a month of Pilates, I can see more definition on my stomach muscles and around my waist. Pilates is brilliant for targeting the deep abdominal muscles we often forget, as well as the outer abdominals that we work in the hope of getting a six-pack. 

Of course, the goal of Pilates isn't to get a six-pack — no matter how good the Pilates instructor is, he or she cannot alter your genetics, plus Pilates itself isn't a cardiovascular workout, which is one of the best ways for losing body fat. That said, as part of an exercise routine that involves cardio and good lifestyle choices, Pilates can target your core, and as I've found, have positive results. 

I’m not ready to go back to the weights just yet  

After a month of Pilates, I’m feeling great, and I’m in no rush to return to the weight room in the gym. Of course, there are huge benefits to lifting weights and when it comes to training for my next long-distance race, I’m sure I’ll find myself back in the gym, but for now, I’m not ready to swap my calm, peaceful workouts. 

My main lesson? Do what feels right for you and your body, and don’t make exercise a punishment. Be it yoga, dance, running, or boxing, moving in a way that makes you feel great will help you carve out an exercise routine that lasts far longer than the rest of your New Year’s resolutions. 

Looking for more workout inspiration? Take look at this exercise that’s better than squats at building your glutes, the best arm exercises for building your triceps and the best exercises to do if you sit down all day

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.