The Top 5 Ways Pilates Can Help Your Acting

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Joseph Harrington has been doing Pilates for more than half of his life. A performer and dancer—he played Billy in “Billy Elliot: The Musical” on Broadway—and an instructor at Studio Pilates in Brooklyn, New York, Harrington started when he was 10 years old and then committed to weekly private sessions when he was a teenager. “I was dealing with literal growing pains,” he says. “I think I grew, like, two feet in six months.” Since then, Harrington has sworn by the practice for amplifying and improving many aspects of performing. 

1. It helps with breathing.

Pilates is all about using breath to fuel movement. “You learn how to inhale slowly and exhale slowly as you work through exercises, which I think is really useful in performance,” Harrington says. “Pilates helps just in practicing how to use your diaphragm, how to use your back to breathe, how to expand your rib cage, all those good things. And that definitely goes for speaking your lines and always being on your voice.”

2. It improves posture and, by extension, boosts confidence.

In Pilates, there’s literally an exercise called chest expansion, which pulls the shoulders together and down in the back—and can seemingly add inches to your stature. “It’s something we all need as we look at our stupid little phones and computers,” Harrington jokes. What’s more, that apparent lift “definitely helps with your presence and the way you hold yourself,” he says. “That’s crucial as a performer and especially in auditions—going into a room, feeling like your chest is proud—you have confidence in what you’re doing and how you conduct yourself.”

3. It builds stamina.

Long days on set, standing around, hurrying up to wait: No wonder it’s easy for an actor’s energy to flag. Pilates can build your stamina for those long days. “People underestimate how much Pilates helps with muscular endurance,” Harrington says. “From the outside, it doesn’t look like a super-intense workout. It’s not high impact, you’re not jumping around, throwing around giant dumbbells. But you’re learning how to always be moving from your core, how to be in motion while still having weight and tension in your muscles.”

4. It hones focus and mindfulness.

Acting requires a breathtaking amount of coordination—hitting your mark, knowing your cue, reciting your lines, staying focused on the moment—all while making it seem effortless and natural. As Harrington sees it, Pilates conditions you for this: “You have to think about your body, make these positions, you have to be so quick, and you have to think about everything you’re doing at all times,” he says. “That’s one of my favorite parts. Pilates makes you not think about whatever is going on anywhere else and just worry about what’s going on with your body.”

5. It hastens recovery.

Performing—both dancing and acting—can take its toll on your body. Pilates can serve as a gentle workout that maintains strength but also keeps you from getting hurt. In particular, Harrington says, workouts that involve the reformer machine are especially good, since much of the exertion happens when you’re lying on your back, with your body and joints supported and protected from injuries that can happen with instability. “A reformer’s spring tension—you just don’t get that kind of strengthening from anything else,” he says.