OVERLAND PARK, KS -- No longer relegated to dance studios or the private exercise rooms of the rich and famous, Pilates has become an integral part of many fitness programs, finding a niche in fitness centers around the world. Along with its growing popularity, this method of exercise has transformed.

“There has been so much growth in the Pilates space during the last 10 years,” says Lindsay Merrithew, founder, president and CEO of Stott Pilates, a 20-year-old Pilates education, equipment and video-production company based in Toronto. A recent report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that in the past 10 years, Pilates training grew by 456 percent.

Merrithew says that some of the more recent growth is the result of instructors and educators finding different applications for Pilates — for example, use in sports-specific training.

Ken Endelman, founder and CEO of Sacramento, CA-based Balanced Body, a 35-year-old Pilates equipment manufacturer, adds that more and more athletic trainers are using Pilates training with their athletes because a strong core and balanced musculature can increase sports performance while decreasing injury.

Pilates growth also has come from its use in rehabilitation.

“From a rehab standpoint, it's an extremely effective form of therapy as the principles of the exercise echo most of the principles of orthopedic physical therapy,” Endelman says. “The equipment can be used to assist as well as resist movement, allowing patients to accomplish movements they may not be able to on their own.”

Pilates' transformation can be partly attributed to its place in its life cycle. Every marketplace product moves through a relatively predictable process — from introduction to maturity to decline. As a product matures, it enjoys more and more popularity.

Initially, Pilates had been offered in small studios that promoted individual training or small group classes, which meant that for some people, it had an air of elitism about it.

“The perception of Pilates as expensive and elitist really crumbled once fitness centers began to offer Pilates programming,” Endelman says. “Many clubs began offering free Pilates mat classes to their members as a springboard toward getting them to try fee-based equipment programming. It really was a win-win because members got to try something they didn't think they could afford, and fitness centers created a new stream of non-dues revenue.”

However, as Merrithew points out, Pilates' initial introduction in health clubs as mat classes led club managers to think of Pilates as just a group fitness program. Today, he says, the pendulum is swinging back, as more fitness center operators are dedicating standalone areas for individual and small group Pilates classes.

Castle Hill Fitness, Austin, TX, earns 50 percent of its revenue from private training. The center also is adding more drop-in exercise classes, including Pilates.

“Over the last four to five years, we've made Pilates a lot more accessible to our membership,” says Celeste Cyr, human resources and customer relationship manager at Castle Hill Fitness. “Pilates doesn't lend itself well to group work, but we're doing it. People are asking for it.”

But not all fitness experts are on board with these changes. Christhian Ruiz, personal trainer and owner of Interactive Fitness in Baltimore, says that he prefers working with Pilates clients one-on-one or in smaller groups because the basics of Pilates can be lost when it's done in a large group.

Despite Pilates' growth, the fitness industry needs to spend less time marketing to the converted and more time breaking down barriers to Pilates, some say. Although Endelman says that the introduction of Pilates into health clubs has increased men's participation in the practice, the overall perception is still that Pilates is mostly for women.

Merrithew says that the industry should reframe its positioning and marketing of Pilates to make it more accessible and appealing to both genders. By promoting that many professional male athletes train using Pilates, more men might take up the exercise.

Perhaps the biggest benefits of Pilates are for aging Baby Boomers, a huge market for fitness clubs, Cyr says. Castle Hill Fitness is now receiving referrals to Pilates workouts from local chiropractors, orthopedists and physical therapists.

With the growth in Pilates, club members have become more discerning. Rather than just being instructed to move in a particular manner, they want to understand how their bodies are working, Merrithew says. They challenge their trainers. Pilates forces people to think about what they're doing and what the exercise is doing for them.

“Pilates is evolving for sure,” Cyr says. Castle Hill Fitness has added Pilates equipment to its regular gym floor rather than setting up a separate Pilates studio. The center also is adding hybrid classes, such as Pilates-based walking workouts and ballet classes.

“We want to educate and empower our clients to take Pilates,” Cyr says. “Our Pilates instructors like to say that Pilates is the key to the gym. It's the foundation of fitness.”