Choosing the right exercise mat for Pilates can be mind-boggling, given the assortment of mats available online and in shops. Prices can start from as low as $20 to near $150 for a top-end mat. Why do prices vary that much, and how do you choose the right mat?

PILATES VS. YOGA MATS

Most mats sold in the market are about 0.5 – 0.6 cm thick, which is good for yoga, but not as good for Pilates. Mats meant for Pilates are thicker because there are many Pilates exercises, where you are either lying on the back or sitting on the sit bone, as you strengthen the core muscles. A thick mat will offer more comfort and support when doing the exercises on the mat.

Figure 1: Pilates exercise, the Teaser which requires balancing on the sit bone. A thick mat provides more support.

Yoga mats, on the other hand, are generally thin and rough on the surface to provide traction for the hands and feet when doing poses like the Downward Dog. Yoga poses require holding over a period of time. A thin, rough mat offers a good grip for the hands and feet, and is less slippery during a sweaty session.

Figure 2: An exercise mat for yoga is thin and rough to offer more grip for the hands and feet.

FOR WRIST OR KNEE SUPPORT

Additionally, if you have wrist pain or knee pain, a thick mat will provide more cushioning for the painful wrist or knee when you are down on the floor. If you plan to use the mat for foam rolling, a thicker mat is also better than a thin one since you will be on your back or in a plank position most of the time. A thick mat offers more support for the lower back, hands and feet, as you roll the knots and tension from your body.

However, if you need to bring your own mat to class, don’t go for the thickest mat around. Opt for a lightweight mat that is easy to carry. You don’t want to be lugging a mat that weighs like a log. You would have to strike a balance between comfort and portability. A mat used at home or at a Pilates studio is likely thicker and more comfortable than a mat that you travel with.

AVOID PVC MATS

Next, check what material the mat is made of. Most of the items which used everyday, including mats are made from some form of plastics. The most common type of plastic used for mats is PVC (polyvinyl chloride.) PVC mats are the most affordable mats in the market. They typically cost from $20 – 40. However, PVC contains phthalates, a solvent used to make the plastic polymer, soft and flexible. Phthalates, which are also found in some cosmetics, are known to be harmful to the human body. They can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system.

PVC is also non biodegradable. PVC would remain in the environment years after you have thrown the mat away. The styrene polymer won’t break down by itself. It emits toxic fumes when burned, and pollutes ground water when it is discarded in a dump pit. So choose a safer material.

SAFER OPTIONS 

It is hard to eliminate the use of all plastics from our daily lives, but you can choose safer, and more environmental-friendly plastics. TPE (thermoplastic elastomer,) PU (polyurethane) and NBR (nitrile butadiene rubber) mats are alternatives to PVC mats. Although they are not 100% biodegradable, most of the polymers would break down on their own with time unlike PVC.

TPE, PU and NBR mats are also more expensive than PVC mats. Prices start from about $30 for a basic TPE mat to near $150 depending on brand and print.

Figure 3: Different types of mats. From clockwise: TPE (in blue,) NBR (grey) and TP foam (red) mats.

THE PRETTIEST MATS

The most distinctive feature of TPE mats is the print. TPE mats come in different print patterns like a ribbed or leaf motif than runs through the entire mat. The prints are meant to provide better grip for the hands and feet when you are on the mat, but they are also pretty to look at. Some TPE mats have two layers of TPE foam glued together for additional thickness. Often in contrasting colours, the two layers and the patterns made TPE mats some of the prettiest mats around.

PU mats, on the other hand, are made of a co-polymer similar to polyester, except PU is more elastic. The surface of a PU mat is smooth not rough like most mats, but they are non-slip and absorb sweat well. PU mats are often used for yoga.

THE THICKEST MATS

NBR is also known as synthetic rubber. The main feature of a NBR mat is the thickness of the mat. They are usually 1 cm or more thick. As they are comfortable to lie on, NBR mats are often used for Pilates. But the disadvantage of NBR mats is, though they are lightweight, they are bulky like pillows. Good for studio and home use, but not ideal if you need to travel with the mat.

There are also greener choices like mats made with natural rubber, jute and cork. They are more expensive than plastic mats, and less readily available. They will also be heavier than plastic mats.

ANTIBACTERIAL MATS

Do you sweat a lot when you exercise? An accumulation of sweat and heat from your workout can make the mat a hot-bed for bacteria to grow. So when buying a mat, choose one that is labeled “antibacterial.”  The label means the mat has been treated with an antimicrobial agent. The additional coating makes it easier to keep the mat clean.

For Pilates, choose a mat of about 1 cm thick. A thicker mat will also be more comfortable on your joints if you have wrist or knee pain, or you intend to use the mat for foam rolling.

However, if you plan to travel with the mat, opt for a thinner mat, without sacrificing on comfort and support. Below is a compilation of some popular mats, and how they compared with each other based on material, thickness, antimicrobial properties and price:

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