Combating the Middle Age Spread
Question: “I am experiencing the ‘middle age spread’ and want to flatten, tone and tighten up my stomach. What machine or exercises would you suggest?”
Popular infomercials would have you believe that using a single abdominal machine for a few minutes a day can provide you with washboard abs, but it is not that simple. This misconception is based on the false belief that performing a variety of abdominal strengthening exercises will melt away the fat surrounding your midsection. As discussed in previous articles, spot reducing does not work! There is no magical exercise or machine that will selectively eliminate fat in a specific area of your body.
However, it is possible to strengthen and tone muscles in a specific area. If you gradually reduce your overall level of body fat and at the same time strengthen and tone your abdominal muscles, you can achieve the desired result.
A soft and flabby midsection, the so-called “middle age spread,” is the result of two contributing factors: the amount of body fat within and around your abdominals, and the condition of the muscles themselves. Successful “waist” management will require addressing each factor separately. The soft cushion of fat covering your abdominal muscles has been deposited there because, over time, you have consumed more calories (energy) than was required to fuel your daily activities. Some fat naturally settles around the midsection—this is particularly true for men.
The only proven way to lose excess fat is to consume fewer calories than you burn over an extended time. You can do this by adding energy-burning physical activity to your daily routine, by reducing calorie intake, or preferably a combination of both.
During the period when you are reducing levels of body fat, you should also be toning and tightening your abdominal muscles. Ab exercises generally target three primary areas: upper abs, lower abs and obliques, as well as trunk muscles commonly referred to as “the core.” Your core is made up of several muscle groups that include the abdominals, back, hips and buttocks. It is important, particularly as we get older, to maintain a strong core. Your workouts should involve a variety of exercises that strengthen the entire mid-section.
A few years ago, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) evaluated and ranked exercises and exercise machines on their effectiveness in working the abdominal muscles. One of their findings was that many of the costly machines at that time were, on average, no more beneficial than exercises that require little or no equipment and minimal or no expense. The following three exercises were ranked in the ACE top five most effective exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles.
- Bicycle maneuver: This exercise was at the top of the list. Lie flat with your lower back pressed to the floor. Place your hands behind or beside your head, raise your knees to about a 45-degree angle, and slowly move your legs in a circular, bicycle-peddling type movement. Touch your left elbow to your right knee, then right elbow to left knee. Breathe normally throughout the motion.
- Exercise ball crunch: This exercise requires a large rubber exercise ball. Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor. Let the ball roll back slowly. Now lie back on the ball until your thighs and torso are parallel with the floor. Cross your arms over your chest and slightly tuck your chin in toward your chest. Contract your abdominals raising your torso to no more than 45 degrees. For better balance, spread your feet wider apart. To challenge the obliques, make the exercise less stable by moving your feet closer together. Exhale as you contract; inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Vertical leg crunch: Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground. Put your hands behind your head for support. Extend your legs straight up in the air, crossed at the ankles with a slight bend in the knee. Contract your abdominal muscles by lifting your torso toward your knees. Make sure to keep your chin off your chest with each contraction. Exhale as you contract upward; inhale as you return to the starting position.
A simple yet effective exercise that will strengthen your entire core is the plank. There are several variations of plank exercises, but the most basic is where you assume a push-up position with back straight while resting on your forearms. Posing in the plank position utilizes all the core muscles, so you simply hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds (or longer), depending on your level of fitness. Then lower your body (knees to the floor), rest for a few seconds, and repeat. It is suggested that you perform multiple sets.
In summary, there is no need to purchase an expensive piece of exercise equipment to tighten and tone your abs. However, if you find an ab device that motivates you to stick with a workout program, then it may be worth the expense. Also keep in mind that not all exercises will work equally well for all people. The effectiveness of an exercise may depend in part on factors such as your athleticism, your comfort level with the exercise, and the consistency of your workouts.
The bottom line is that it is important for everyone, regardless of whether you are experiencing the middle age spread, to maintain strong abdominal and core muscles. A strong core promotes good posture, assists in alleviating lower back pain, and plays an essential role in promoting long-term health and well-being. As always, it is recommended that you check with your physician before starting a new exercise program.