The answer to a lost job is ... Pilates?

The exercise regimen that uses springs, pulleys, "spine correctors" and other specialized equipment to beat back the effects of gravity and age is helping some people defy the sagging labor market as well.

Even the state of Minnesota is getting in on the act, recently shelling out thousands in re-training dollars to help a few of the newly laid-off get certified as Pilates instructors. The Mayo Clinic will launch its own instructor certification program next month, and Twin Cities area studios say they can't find enough qualified instructors to meet demand, which comes largely from aging baby boomers.

Instructors can command anywhere from around $20 to $65 an hour.

Nicole DePalma, laid off from the Minnetonka YMCA last year, is now a full-time Pilates coordinator for Life Time Fitness in Savage.

"I'm thrilled," DePalma said. "It will be nice to pay bills again."

She needed help to make the transition, though.

DePalma first dashed off an inquiry to the SweatShop, an exercise studio in St. Paul, and was pleasantly shocked to get an interview the next day. The SweatShop was interested, but there was a problem. DePalma had Pilates teaching certifications from the YMCA and Power House Pilates, but the SweatShop required certification from Stott Pilates, which some regard as the industry's premier imprimatur.

The Stott-approved courses cost thousands of dollars. "And with unemployment, the max I make is $300 a week," DePalma said.

So DePalma met with Leah McNamee, a counselor with the nonprofit HIRED agency that provides dislocated workers services for the state. McNamee said she sees lots of requests for job retraining in nursing, education and other disciplines, but DePalma's retraining request was "a first."

Even so, she dug into DePalma's background, learned about her 30 years of fitness work, her work at the Y and job opportunities that awaited DePalma at the SweatShop. It took a day, but DePalma got cleared.

In March the state began paying DePalma's $4,000 tuition bill for 50 hours of intense Pilates course work. (It has since agreed to pay for others' classes as well.)

Because of the training, which DePalma completed May 16, the SweatShop agreed to hire her part time at $22 an hour. But then Life Time Fitness followed with the full-time offer.

SweatShop Health Club owner Gayle Winegar wasn't surprised to lose DePalma. Competition for experienced teachers is stiff.

"People might give up their up their kid's dance lessons, but they are not giving up Pilates," she said.

Why so much interest in Pilates?

Invented by German-born Joseph Pilates in the 1920s to build core strength for gymnasts and dancers, the regimen has become a favorite among baby boomers who rely on it to stop pain, improve posture and keep their spines healthy.

"You start doing it and notice you are no longer in pain because you learn how to activate those core muscles that support your spine," said Lori Casey, lead instructor at the Mayo Clinic.

Elizabeth Anderson, executive director of the international membership and certification organization Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), said even chiropractors and physical therapists are taking classes, getting trained as instructors, and ordering clients into the studio. PMA's U.S. certifications rose 10 percent this year despite the recession, Anderson said.

But Pilates is expensive to learn or teach. The "reformer," one of the seven pieces of equipment used by each client or student, costs $5,000. And it can't be used in other group fitness classes; it's specific to Pilates.

Studio owners say that's part of the reason demand for teachers still outstrips supply.

"I need trainers," said Julie Gronquist, owner of Balance For Life in Shoreview, which has seen Pilates revenues jump 20 percent this year. "If I need to hire a personal trainer there are a bazillion of them. But if I need to hire a Pilates trainer, it's very hard."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725