by Maia Appleby
"HOW DO I GET RID OF THIS?" Men and women of every shape and size ask me this question all the time, pointing to their bellies with puzzled faces. It's the million-dollar question, and many companies are making more money than that offering answers. You don't need to spend a dime to tighten and tone those abdominals, though. You only need to understand a few things about the human body
THE LATEST GIMMICK:
Many television ads are now pitching devices that supposedly stimulate muscles so that they contract over and over without exercise. I even saw an informercial for an ab belt that claims it does the work of 700 sit-ups in ten minutes! The ad shows people doing various abdominal exercises the wrong way, hating every second of it, versus smiling men and women going about their days with "Ab-whatevers" strapped around them. How enticing.
Several people in these ads claim to have lost inches around the waist as a result of using these products. Many inches. Men with six-pack abs give credit to the device.
This is feeding the viewership's disillusionment about how to lose the belly. Strengthening the abs alone (and these machines couldn't possible do much of that) just won't do it.
Why is this? Because of the fat! If a heavy woman does hundreds of crunches a day, she may develop strong abs, and they might tighten up a bit, but she'll still have lots of fat covering them up, and she won't look any thinner. About fifty percent of her body fat is located directly beneath the skin. Do you know where most of the rest of it is? Inside the muscles. Doing crunches will not get rid of this fat, and neither will the vibrating belt in the television ads.
BURN THE FAT:
The best way to slim down in the middle is to do plenty of cardiovascular exercise. Some good examples of this are walking, jogging, swimming, aerobics, bicycling and high-activity sports like racquetball, tennis and basketball. Anything that brings your heart rate to its training zone and keeps it there for at least twenty minutes conditions your heart and burns fat. As you lose subcutaneous fat, your skin will become more taut. As the fat within your muscles decreases, you will appear more toned and less flabby. The number one thing you need to think about is the cardio. Five times a week.
MAKE YOUR BODY A MORE EFFECTIVE FAT BURNER:
Toning along with cardiovascular work will speed up and improve the process, but don't think that you only need to work on your abs. This is another grave misconception.
The truth is that when you work all the larger muscle groups, adding more mass to your muscles, you rev up your metabolism to heights it has never before reached. Your muscles need extra calories to maintain themselves, so more of the food you eat will be feeding your muscles instead of your trouble spots. Your conditioned heart (from the cardiovascular stuff) is more effective at burning calories as well, so you have the golden combination, there.
As the fat comes off your body, it will come off your belly. Your body fat is like one organ, located throughout your body, and you can't take it off of just one spot unless you have liposuction done.
The large muscles that you should concentrate on are (in this order) front and back of thighs, buttocks, back, chest, triceps and biceps. Then, you can throw in calves, hips, forearms and shoulders.
Always work your abs at the end of your workout. There's a good reason for this. You are indirectly using them for all the other exercises you do. The abs are important stabilizer muscles that keep your form in check. If you do abs first, you will tire them out, and your whole workout will be less than optimal. Work down from the largest to the smallest muscles.
Crunches and sit-ups primarily work the largest abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominis, which flexes the spine. This muscle compresses the abdomen to a point, but there are other muscles that you need to pay attention to, as well.
The internal and external obliques, which I like to call 'nature's girdle', are located at the sides of the rectus abdominis. They are the muscles you use when you bend sideways at the spine or twist at the waist. They also contract to compress the abdomen, so you should work them just as hard as you work the rectus abdominis. Adding a twist to crunches works, as well as 'side bends' with dumbbells, but be careful not to use any jerky motions, especially if you've had back problems.
The transversus abdominis is located at your sides, below the obliques. Often called 'lower abs', this is the muscle that women who are trying to lose the belly after pregnancy should concentrate on. Exercises that call for raising the legs instead of the upper body are very effective at strengthening the transversus. METHODS (please note links to articles that contain more information):
Walking puts all of the abdominal muscles to work. Make sure you swing your arms and contract your midsection while you walk, and maintain a brisk pace. Once you get your body accustomed to a daily walk, you'll hate to go a day without it. Walk for at least thirty minutes each time to achieve the aerobic effect, and be sure to drink plenty of water.
Weight training not only helps the metabolism, but it also strengthens the bones. Women who work out with weights are much less likely to develop osteoporosis in later years than their counterparts. Adding muscle also does wonders for the energy level and self-esteem. Contrary to a popular myth, lifting weights will not bulk you up with muscles that will eventually turn to more fat. They will give you a more feminine and symmetrical shape. If you enjoy weight training, do it.
Yoga is equally effective at strengthening the body, especially the abs and back. It improves the posture tremendously, to create a taller, leaner appearance. Pilates and many mat-based exercises are also great alternatives.
The important thing is that you find an activity that you like to do. This will greatly improve the odds of you sticking to it.
A WORD ABOUT DRUGS:
Weight loss 'supplements' are not safe, and using them is not a good idea unless your obesity is so out of control that your life is at stake. Makers of these products market them using words like 'natural' and 'herbal', but the truth is that if it's synthetic, it's a drug.
I'm not just talking about ephedra-based products. Even over-the-counter, seemingly harmless drugs can be lethal. For example, scientists at Yale University School of Medicine reported that phenylpropanolamine hydrochloride, found in weight loss aids such as Dexatrim, increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding into the brain or into tissue surrounding the brain) in women. The FDA is trying to remove it from shelves.
Not only are these products dangerous, but they can actually make you gain weight in the long run. They can cause your body to go into 'starvation mode', clinging to every calorie it gets for dear life. Once you've messed your metabolism up to this point, it is even more difficult to lose weight. And where does the fat become the most stubborn? Probably in the hips, thighs or belly.
The most important thing you need to do is to program yourself mentally. Don't use a scale to measure your progress. If you work out with weights, you may gain a few pounds while losing inches around the waist. Instead, use that pair of jeans that you want to fit into again, or a pair that fits you now. You'll see a slight change every few weeks, and that should give you confidence.
Walk as tall as you can. Do back and leg stretches daily to improve your posture. When you're driving to work, sit up nice and straight and adjust the rear-view mirror so that you'll know when you're slouching. Don't let your shoulders fall forward when you're at your desk. You can look a size smaller just by doing these things.
I hate to say it. We've all seen people with 'good genes' and wondered if they had any idea how lucky they are. They probably don't, but that's okay. Consider it a character-building experience. If you blame your ancestors for excess flesh in the middle, don't feel helpless. You just have to work a little harder than some others. You can still sculpt out a slimmer silhouette with cardiovascular exercise, a healthy, balanced, low fat diet and whatever bonus activities you throw in. This may not be a novel approach, but it really works.
I'm not telling you that it's easy, but it really is pretty simple. In an age where people don't even have to go outside to grill a steak, it's tempting to spend a few dollars on a quick fix. Human anatomy hasn't changed much throughout history, however. If you adopt your grandparents' work ethic and apply it to your every day life, you will achieve your greatest results.