Should you do Pilates or yoga? Which is best for weight loss, burning calories, and toning your muscles

Allison Torres Burtka,Joey Thurman
woman doing yoga
Yoga's emphasis on breath-work and meditation makes it more relaxing than Pilates. Cavan Images/Getty images
  • Both Pilates and yoga are exercises designed to build strength and improve flexibility. 

  • Yoga and Pilates are both good for weight loss — but yoga, especially vinyasa yoga, burns more calories per hour. 

  • Deciding between Pilates and yoga comes down to personal preference and whichever gets you most excited to workout. 

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice

Both Pilates and yoga are exercises that focus on mind-body connection and offer similar health benefits, including improved strength and flexibility. But their approaches and goals differ. 

Here's what you need to know about the differences between Pilates and yoga and which is best for you. 

Pilates vs. yoga: What's the difference? 

Joseph Pilates invented the Pilates method in the 1920s. It is designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body through specific exercises and focused breathing. Types of Pilates include mat and reformer - which uses a special exercise machine with a sliding platform and cables.

"[Pilates has] a high emphasis on neuro-motor control and training your brain and your nervous system to be able to finely tune and control your movements for the desired effect," says Catherine Lewan, a licensed physical therapist who uses both yoga and Pilates in her physical therapy sessions. 

 

Yoga originated thousands of years ago in India and is a mind-body exercise. Many different styles of yoga exist, from hatha yoga to hot yoga, but all involve moving through different physical postures. Yoga incorporates different breathing techniques, such as moving with one breath per movement. Some types of yoga include meditation.

"Pilates is very repetitive and focused on strengthening small stabilizer muscles. So you may feel more strain in your muscles when you do Pilates," says Rachele Pojednic, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at Simmons University. "It feels a little bit more like a strength type of workout, where yoga tends to be a little bit more fluid. Often, there's music, and you're moving with your breath."

Both build strength and flexibility

 

A 2015 study found that hatha yoga participants saw improvements in muscle strength and flexibility after 12 weeks. A small 2014 study also found that women who practiced Pilates for 12 weeks improved their muscle strength and torso flexibility.

Pilates may be slightly better than yoga for improving strength, particularly core strength, because it often uses an external stimulus, such as the reformer, whereas yoga uses your own body weight, Pojednic says. 

"Yoga is probably going to be a little bit better for flexibility," Pojednic says. "The poses are really about stretching your muscles and creating a little bit more space in your body."

Yoga is better for cardiovascular health 

Faster-paced versions of yoga, like vinyasa, elevate your heart rate more than slower, restorative types of yoga or Pilates. "Pilates doesn't tend to have that very vigorous type of format," Pojednic says.

A small 2017 study found that practicing yoga every day for a month reduced participants' blood pressure, a key indicator of heart health. 

Yoga may be better for improving balance 

Both yoga and Pilates improve balance. Balance is important for preventing falls, which is especially important as you age. 

Because yoga often includes specific balancing exercises, such as poses where you stand on one leg, it might be more helpful for balance. "In yoga, you're actually practicing the balancing, and in Pilates, you're toning the muscles that will be helpful for balance," Pojednic says.

Both can help you lose weight 

 

If you're trying to lose weight, how many calories you burn while exercising matters. The calories you burn during yoga and Pilates will depend on the type you practice. 

For example, the American Council on Exercise found 50 minutes of: 

  • Hatha yoga burned 144 calories

  • Power yoga burned 237 calories

  • Beginner Pilates burned 175 calories

  • Advanced Pilates burned 254 calories

Other measurements have found yoga can burn even more: 540 calories per hour for vinyasa yoga, a vigorous style.   

A 2013 review found that yoga programs often help people lose weight. A small 2020 study of obese young women with elevated blood pressure found mat Pilates also reduced body fat. 

To lose weight safely and effectively, you should work with a doctor or nutritionist to create an individualized plan for diet and exercise. 

Yoga is better for reducing stress 

A 2019 study compared women who practiced yoga and women who practiced Pilates. The study found both types of exercise improved self-reported measures of well-being and psychological distress, but the yoga group saw greater improvement.

Some yoga involves deep breathing, which calms the nervous system and reduces stress. 

"One of the critical elements of many yoga practices is combining the actual breath with the movement that you're going through," Pojednic says. "Although you certainly are encouraged to breathe with movement during Pilates, I think that the combined effect of moving with breath that yoga offers is going to be a more potent stress reduction stimulus."

Which is better for you? 

Yoga and Pilates can be "well suited to all different types of bodies and all different types of abilities," Pojednic says. You might think you need to be flexible and strong or have a dancer's body, but you don't, she says.

"If somebody gets a little bit more excited about strength training, they probably will like Pilates a little bit better," Pojednic says. "If somebody enjoys fluid, full-body motion, I think that they would gravitate a little bit more toward yoga."

 You can try yoga or Pilates in the following ways: 

  • Private instruction, which tailors workouts to your needs

  • Mat and reformer Pilates group classes

  • Group yoga classes like restorative, hatha, and vinyasa

Insider's takeaway 

Both Pilates and yoga are beneficial, and their variety means you can probably find one style you enjoy. 

"I think the most important thing is to try them both and figure out which one you like better, and then keep going back to that," Pojednic says. "Finding the thing that really makes you happy, I think, is the key here, more so than getting into the nitty-gritty about which one is going to help you balance better or burn more calories."

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