OVERLAND PARK, KS — As the economy stretches fitness budgets, Pilates education and equipment manufacturing companies are holding steady and making inroads into new markets. At the root of this unique position is the mainstreaming of Pilates itself and greater interest in Pilates education.

Pilates has enjoyed a tremendous upward momentum over the past 30 years, says Lindsay Merrithew, president and chief executive officer for Stott Pilates.

“We're not impervious to the recession,” Merrithew says. “We, like everyone else, are taking a close look at how we adapt. We are flat, but it's better than down.”

Merrithew's company manufactures Pilates equipment, but he says that educational services reign supreme.

“That is really the foundation of not only our business but the industry,” he says.

That's a good thing, since a poor economy often spurs interest in additional training or career changes.

“Pilates enthusiasts are thinking, ‘I'd like to be a Pilates teacher,'” says Brent Anderson, owner and founder of Polestar Education, an international training company that provides services in 38 countries and eight languages. “I do think that we're in a very good place.”

The life cycle of Pilates has a lot to do with stability as well. Fifteen years ago, Pilates was still mainly practiced by the rich and famous. Today, it's a staple in many exercise regimens.

Ken Endelman, president and founder of Balanced Body, a 32-year-old Pilates equipment and education company, says that this economic downturn is the first one in which his company hasn't continued to see growth. However, instead of blaming it completely on the economy, he attributes part of the lack of growth to the fact that Pilates is more mature now than in past recessions.

“In this year, we've seen major gyrations, and I think this is because Pilates has become so big,” he says, adding that the mainstreaming of Pilates means people from various economic levels are participating in Pilates, and the economy may have affected their participation.

Like Polestar Education, Balanced Body has noticed a slight increase in interest in certification programs. To meet this need, the company attends smaller conferences across the country.

“It's all about making things as easy as possible for the customer,” Endelman says.

Polestar Education is taking a similar approach by reaching out to people who might otherwise not get the Pilates training they want.

“Education has to be more accessible in the rural areas,” Anderson says. “People won't or can't travel for education.”

Anderson also is looking to the university and college market, providing entry-level certification programs for physical education, dance and sports medicine students.

New markets, such as the rehabilitation market, are a focus for Merrithew as well, but breaking into this market may require more than just education.

“As Pilates evolves and becomes more common in rehabilitation, empirical data will be needed [to prove its effectiveness],” he says. Stott Pilates is in the midst of a research program to provide the statistics that rehab specialists need and want.

As for the equipment itself, Balanced Body has seen an increase in equipment leases more than in equipment sales.

“A lot of it is about convenience,” Endelman says. “Our focus over the last year is to really stay in contact with our customers because they're just kind of skittish.”

Whether it's a result of the recession or Pilates' life cycle, diversification is key in 2009 and beyond.

“We can't continue to do the same things we did two years ago and expect to survive,” Anderson says.