Everyone’s seen those adverts with the cute animated gif of a woman’s stomach shrinking (why is it always a woman, don’t men have guts too?). They promise to reduce your stomach fat a bit at a time by just following an amazing weird old tip. Funny how when I follow the link they always seem to go to a site mocked up like a magazine article recommending you to buy some strange tea or tablet, usually based on a berry. Like that’s every worked.
I keep visiting because you never know – someone might have found a way to break the laws of physics and nature one day. So if expensive snake oil doesn’t work, what can you do?
Sensible Recommendation: If you are over 40 or have a known medical condition please have a chat with your doctor before starting any exercise or diet program. Any recommendation made here assume that you are in good health, and don’t have any joint or medical condition that could be aggravated by the advice.
This fat was very valuable when the men would go out and chase a mammoth for days and the women would work hard digging for roots in the snow (bit of a gender divide assumed there, but hey it was prehistoric times).
Fat – what’s the point of it?
Fat has a role in insulating and padding the body, and making hormones and cell membranes; but most of it is there as a store for the hard times. Long, long ago, when our ancestors lived a hunter gather existence, food would be plentiful in the summer and autumn when there migrating animals fat from summer grass and fruits and seeds to gather. The body dealt with this excess by storing it as fat for the coming winter for energy and to keep us warm. Over a tough winter those with better fat stores would be more likely to survive and go on and have children.
This fat was very valuable when the men would go out and chase a mammoth for days and the women would work hard digging for roots in the snow (bit of a gender divide assumed there, but hey it was prehistoric times). The fat that we tend to lay down around our middle was particularly used for this purpose – getting through the hard season or long duration aerobic activity. These days we only have to drive to the supermarket for our weekly mammoth and tubers shipped in from wherever it is summer, and so the fat stores tend not to get used and build up over time. It then sits around our internal organs such as our liver and pancreas and makes us more prone to chronic disease such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The limits of sit-ups.
People commonly think the way to a flat stomach is gazillions of sit-ups. The idea being that you build and tone the stomach muscles, and burn the fat around them. Well you will certainly tone the muscles, but chances are that you will get toned muscles invisible under a layer of fat, and a sore back.
When you do anaerobic exercise like sit-ups, the majority of fuel you will be your body’s carbohydrate stores; glycogen in the muscles and liver. Any fat burnt will come from stores inside the muscles, or is released from around your body, not just the nearest store. Spot reduction is a myth, and abdominal fat is just as, if not more likely to be used for longer term aerobic exercise.
The other potential problem is that if you just build the rectus abdominus (abs) muscles, it’s pretty bad for your posture. They can become tight and pull you into a forward hunch, particularly if you work at a desk all day, which can result in back pain. So actually more general exercise such as walking, gardening, swimming, cycling or an aerobics class will do more good than 100 sit-ups a day. Sit-ups do have their place in an exercise program, but make sure you also work the back (erector spinae) muscles to get a balance.
The limits of weight loss
We’re all individuals. Different people store fat in a different places. Some store a lot of fat under the skin, so when they put on fat it tends to go evenly all over. Others store a smaller amount of fat under the skin, and will store more around the middle. This is more common in men and often called apple-shaped. Women are more often pear-shaped, storing fat on their hips and thighs. But most of us are somewhere between these extremes. This is genetic and there is a limited amount you can do to change it
If you are overweight there is no doubt that losing body fat will reduce your waistline. And exercise can help reduce it as well. But how quickly fat goes from different parts of the body will depend mostly on genetics. In some, very lucky people, it will go first, but in others the body will stubbornly hang on to it in case it is needed for a mammoth chasing expedition next winter. The fact that this would have helped your ancestors survive and resulted in you being here probably isn’t much consolation.
You will lose fat solely by dieting, there will come a point where you might want to stop. This might be when you start to notice that other parts of you are getting a bit scrawny. I know it’s popular in hollywood, but that toast rack rib look in the upper chest isn’t great, particularly in men. Finally when you lose weight you burn both fat and muscle, and the less muscle you have the less calories you burn. Staying super-skinny means restricting your calories quite a lot long-term, which unless you don’t like food much is seriously boring. Adding exercise to diet helps preserve, or even build, your muscle mass.
OK, is there anything else you can try?
There are a few things that can help the way your midriff looks.
Good posture is an excellent idea because it can start to work straight away and doesn’t require dieting or a great deal of exercise. Standing and sitting well makes a big difference to how you look. However, it’s not really about sucking in the gut and sticking out the chest. This makes it seriously difficult to move, or even breathe. And no I’m not going to strap a board to your back or make you walk around with books on your head (although that one is great for learning to walk well in high heels).
The first thing that you need to do is to find a neutral spine position. Stand up straight, feel facing forwards, hip width apart. Your hips should be above your ankles and your shoulders above your hips. Tip your hips forward so that your lower back hollows and your stomach sticks out. Now tip your hips back so that your lower spine flattens and your stomach will come in. Both of these extreme positions will be quite uncomfortable. Repeat several times and what you are looking for is a balance between the two – usually half way between your hips being tipped fully forwards and them tipped fully back. This is a neutral or balanced spine position.
However if your stomach muscles are not being used this position will be unstable and you will not keep good, stable posture as you move. This is particularly important when doing complex lifting and moving tasks and can be responsible for back pain. The muscles around the trunk area are known as the core muscles and include the transverse abdominus and oblique muscles forming a corset around the middle keeping the spine stable.
Rather than do hundreds of sit-ups, you actually need to strengthen all of these core muscles. With practice it will become second nature to engage them when sitting, standing and moving. This is known as core stability, and both protects your spine and gives you good posture and a slimmer outline. Core stability is also important for mindful movement, which I talk about in more detail later. Imagine that you are pulling the muscles of your lower abdomen backwards and up towards your spine. You should still be able to breathe easily into the upper abdomen. Put your hands on your hip bones with the fingers a couple of inches apart and an inch or two below your belly button and you should be able to feel the transverse abdominus muscles tighten – it only needs to be about half the full contraction to support your spine.
There is plenty of good information on Core Stability Training elsewhere and I am not going to repeat what has been written about this before, However I will be putting up some good sources of information when I get the chance. The Complete Guide to Core Stability by Matt Lawrence is a good place to start if you prefer books or try a google search of “how to engage core muscles”.
Whole body strengthening
While it isn’t possible to spot reduce your stomach, building muscle with regular strength training will help to tone the whole body, improve posture, reduce the amount of body fat and redistribute it away from the midriff (within the limits of your genetics).
Again I’m not going to suggest exercises here as there are a lot of good sites and books that cover strength training. It is, however, worth spending some money on a personal trainer who can work you out a balance whole body program and check you are doing the exercises correctly, and get a review after a few weeks to make sure you aren’t picking up bad habits. Many G.Ps will have access to a subsidized exercise on prescription scheme if you are overweight or have a medical condition, and these are excellent introductions if you lack confidence. It is also possible to train your whole body with simply a set of dumbbells and a bench or gym ball at home if you can’t face the gym. I will be writing an article on exercise at home soon.
If that just isn’t your thing then a vegetable garden or allotment is actually better than a gym membership for getting you fit and building muscle – with the added benefit of fresh fruit and veggies. But make sure you learn how to lift and dig correctly to spare your back. Or there are always local charities that want practical helpers with gardening , wildlife reserve management or even mucking out the ponies at the local disabled riding centre..
One last word on weight training. Massive generalisation here but generally women tend to use weights that are too light (known affectionately as Barbie Bells) and men ones that are too heavy. If you can do more than about 8-10 repetitions with a weight then it is going to build endurance not strength. Women shouldn’t worry about bulking up, as it takes a lot more than a few weight training sessions if you don’t have male levels of testosterone. But equally if you cannot do the repetitions in good form, without rocking backwards and forwards or using your back muscles to help, then you are risking injury and not working the target muscles.
Conditions that can cause you to bloat, such as irritable bowel syndrome, are outside the scope of this article and require advice from a doctor or registered dietitian, but good digestive health can certainly help a trim waistline. Often the problem is either that you have simply eaten too much, too quickly, or that you are constipated. Try sitting down and taking your time with smaller portions. Constipation and bloating can often be improved with more fibre from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, probiotic yoghurt, regular activity and plenty of fluids. But always discuss it with your GP if you have new, unexplained symptoms.
And Finally. . .
If you’ve done all of these things you should feel and look better and be more confident about how you move – but there are two last suggestions if you don’t want to put that much work in, or are still not happy:
Learn to love it or hire a surgeon.
If your body mass index is in the healthy range of 18.5 – 25, particularly at the lower end of the scale, you are doing aerobic, strength and core exercises regularly, and you still are concerned about how your midriff looks, it may be time to learn to love yourself just as you are. No-one’s perfect and there’s more to life than a perfect beach body. If you find that you are very obsessed with how your body looks it might be a sign that you are low in mood generally. It’s worth having a chat to your doctor about this. See the article: First fix your mood for more about this.
Of course a good cosmetic surgeon will be able to perform liposuction or a tummy tuck and improve the look of the area. If your muscles are damaged after having children or surgery then this may be an option you have considered. But make sure you take time to understand exactly what is involved with this in terms of risk and time taken for recovery – it is after all quite major surgery that is not actually necessary for your health.
And there you have it. Quite a few, not that weird, tips for a flatter looking stomach. And I didn’t try to sell you berries once. Although I do have quite a few raspberries in my garden, and they do make an excellent smoothie if anyone is interested.