By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Part I of a six-part series. Come back next week for Part II: Arms.
Hi everyone. This is a terrific time of year to take a moment to check in with your body. How’s your current lifestyle workin’ for you? Well, if you’re like most of America, there’s room for improvement. To help you out, today we begin a six-week series entitled “Tame Your Trouble Spots”. We’ll be doing a full tour de force of your body and finding creative ways to lessen the lumps and shrink the bumps. This week we’ll be focusing on your belly. And we’re adding something new to this blog: my fitness Rx is now live on a video to help guide you. Yep, that’s yours truly bending, flexing and stretching. Follow along and let’s team together to help you look and feel your best mentally and physically.
Before we blast any belly, let’s lay down four golden rules that will apply to every segment of this series. The exercises are important, but you won’t get the results you want unless you engage each one of these critical and essential lifestyle habit elements:
1) Mind: Be clear about your POWER WHY, or the reason you want to do the work to change in the first place. Perhaps you’re a woman who finally wants to feel comfortable wearing a nice white sleeveless dress in the springtime. Or you’re a guy who longs to see his feet again. Whatever the motivation, keep it front and center in your mind to help power you through challenging times when you may want to cave and default to your more sedentary, overeating habits. Also, throughout our series, we’ll tell you again and again how important it is to learn how to adapt and adjust to life’s stresses without resorting to self-destruction. This means you’re going to learn how to regroup much faster and with minimal if any damage control. Finally, be loving and patient with yourself. You’ll definitely slip up and that’s fine. Just learn how to turn it around faster and get right back on track. This takes practice. Hey, you have six weeks to begin to hone this skill!
2) Mouth: You know the drill. What goes in must come out. Alright, it’s never that easy and it’s not quite that precise, but suffice it to say, you can do all the crunches in the world, but if you then go home and stuff your face, we’re going nowhere fast. So, I highly recommend you log onto the WebMD Food and Fitness Planner, input your data and then eat nutritious whole foods in appropriate portions as you pick up the pace in your physical activity. The best abs in the world are the result of a well-structured diet in combination with strength training and cardio exercise. Remember this fact as you dive into this series.
3) Muscle: To truly tame your trouble spots, you need to be combining cardio with strength training. Please try to schedule in no less than 30 minutes of cardio at least 5 days per week. And it’s OK if you break it up into 2 or 3 segments. But when you do them, put some gusto and intensity into whatever form of aerobic exercise you’re doing—Zumba dancing, walking, running, biking, swimming, hiking. The key is to assume the vertical and cook some calories all day long. Don’t just exercise once and sit on your behind the rest of the day because you’ll all but shut down any fat burning you need. So, in addition to the specific exercises we’ll be recommending make a special point of just getting more physical activity in 24/7. This is called increasing your activities of daily living. Clean out the attic, organize the garage, work in the garden, rake the leaves and shovel the snow. They all count!
4) Macrocosm: I’m talking about the environment within which you live and work. De-clutter so you have room to exercise at home. Clean out that closet so you can actually find your sneakers. And start thinking about the people, places and things in your life that either help or hinder your healthy lifestyle goals. Hang around the former and start eliminating the latter. You want to have a supportive environment in every sense of the word. Friends and family members (pets count!) who are your healthy lifestyle cheerleaders are priceless gifts. Cherish them!
Alright let’s get started. It’s belly time.
Take a moment and answer these questions:
1) Is your belly getting so big it’s got its own zip code?
2) When you pack on pounds, does that extra weight make a beeline to your waistline?
3) Can you see your toes?
4) Are you living in elastic waistbands?
5) Does the thought of wearing a white shirt tucked into a cool pair of slim jeans sound like mission impossible?
6) When you turned 40, did you wake up one morning and find a spare tire had mysteriously appeared out of nowhere?
Well, if it’s any comfort, you’re not alone. There’s a major girth control problem going on globally. So, let’s do our humble part in helping to rein in the belly fat. Men, you’ve always had more belly fat cells so you’re wearing your extra beers and pizza around your middle. Women, prior to the age of 40, most of you looked like a pear or an hour glass. After 40—shock, horrors!—you start looking like the guys. Yep, your extra pints of Ben and Jerry’s are creeping up from your thighs and bottom to your belly area and making themselves right at home. You’re morphing from an hourglass to a shot glass! I call this perimenopausal belly fat the menopot. Prior to the age of 40, the belly fat leakage over your waistline is a muffin top. Either way, you need to get this under control so you can look fit and fabulous.
I’m going to make this simple. I looked for the easiest ab exercises to do that give you the best results for your effort. They’re all crunches and they really do the trick. All you need is a floor mat and enough room to lay down and perform your exercise. An ab ball is an inexpensive piece of equipment that’s well worth having. Always get approval from your medical team for any new fitness regimen, especially if you have any medical condition and/or physical disabilities.
All of these exercises can be done 3x week. Heck, do them while you’re watching TV! Also, these exercises are meant to establish a beginning template. If you’re more highly trained, then you can increase the repetitions as well as the resistance.
Ball Crunch: You’re strengthening the muscle that shoots straight down your middle— the rectus abdominus. On the ab ball, the ab muscles really work hard and your whole body is engaged to help stabilize you as you carry out the exercise.
Position yourself such that the ball is under your lower back. Take your arms and place them either behind your head or across your chest. The key is you want them out of the way. Contract your ab muscles, really engaging them, and then lift your torso off the ball as though it were reaching up toward the ceiling, making sure the ball doesn’t roll. You don’t have to curl up much. Now, gently lower back into starting position and while you do, use this as another opportunity to engage your core. Do 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
Another version of this is to grab a lightweight medicine ball (e.g. 2-5 pounds) and hold it up above your head while you do this exercise. As you contract, you’re reaching for the sky with the ball. This adds more resistance and intensity and helps you strengthen your abs even further.
Waist Crunch: This is your typical ab exercise and it’s got a terrific payoff for your rectus abdominus. It looks deceptively easy. Your job is to maintain excellent form and really make your abs work.
Lie on a floor mat on your back. Bend your knees. Place your hands behind your head or across your chest. Flatten that curve in your lower back by pulling your belly button towards your spine. Contract your ab muscles and slowly bring your shoulder blades about 2-3 inches off the floor. Don’t forget to breathe. Exhale as you contract and come up and inhale as you come back down. Make sure to keep your neck straight and your chin up. Once you get to the top, hold for 5 seconds and then slowly lower back down to start position. As you lower, again, here’s a wonderful opportunity to get another ab muscle contraction. Do 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
Bicycle Crunch: This is my favorite crunch because I’m a multi-tasker and I can strengthen three different ab muscles at the same time: rectus abdominus and the internal and external obliques. Plus, it’s fun. I crank up some great music and hammer away. You’ll love it too!
Grab that floor mat again and lie flat on your back, pressing your back into the ground, decreasing the curve in your lower back. Contract your core ab muscles. Position your hands gently behind your head. Lift your knees up to about a 45 degree angle. Aim your right elbow to your left knee and twist to try to reach that knee. You don’t have to. The key is to contract that side oblique ab muscle. Now alternate to the opposite side, with your left elbow aiming for your right knee. Keep it going as you pedal away. Do 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions to each side.
If you can, try each ab exercise and mix it up throughout the week.
Get on the floor and have some fun. Look at you! You’re minimizing that muffin top, mashing that menopot and blasting your belly. Great job!