Sure, having a flat tummy looks nice, but it is far more important than that. Excess fat around the belly is stressful to the organs; they have to work a lot harder; and this puts you at risk for a host of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
People often ask me how I keep my belly so nice, and yes, it is in large part due to Pilates and yoga asanas, but it is more that, so I wanted to share all my secrets with you. If you want a magic bullet, just stop reading–this will require effort on your part. I am going to give you six tricks, which are diet and exercise, but very targeted diet and exercise, which will lead to results over time, and help you keep your belly and body healthy!
(More than a flatter, stronger and healthier tummy, these tricks may help to boost your metabolism, keep your energy up and reduce pain in your back and joints.)
- Fiber. I cannot emphasize enough how important a high-fiber diet is. If you have read my previous blogs, you may realize that I am a vegetarian. I will not try to sell you on a meat-free life here, but I do want to let you understand that meat and meat products, such as dairy will tend to clog up your digestive system resulting in irregular bowels, and that back-up can be visible on the outside. On the contrary, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are like scrub brushes and really keep your digestive tract clean and healthy. This reduces bloating, constipation and the appearance of a big belly. Raw vegetables are diet freebies, meaning you can eat virtually as many as you want. All veggies have fiber and vitamins, so the more you eat the better…within reason. Raw fruit does have sugar, so if you are watching your sugar intake, you need to limit these, but I would cut out sugar from juice, soda and snacks and keep fruits, which give you fiber and vitamins. Whole grains such as rolled oats, brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, faro; and legumes such as black beans, lentils, kidneys and chick peas are all high in fiber, protein and various nutrients. The legumes are virtually carb free, so when combined with healthy carbs, they make a near perfect protein, fill you up and reduce belly bloat! More on fiber here.
- Water. Water, much like fiber helps your body process waste out and therefore reduces bloating and water retention. When we are dehydrated, we will retain fluid, which can make us look and feel bloated. If you don’t like plain water, add a lemon or lime wedge to it, drink plain sparkling water/club soda, coconut water or unsweetened herbal tea. The more you can hydrate the better for everything, but it can also help you reduce belly bloat. Read about my morning tonic here. It is a gret way to kick-start your day of hydration and your metabolism. Juice, diet sodas or anything with any additives do not count. We are going for as close to pure water as possible, not just “sugar-free.”**Here are the ways I start my day with fiber and hydration.
- Cardio. There are no two ways about it, if you have fat around the middle, you need to burn it off. One of the best ways to burn off belly fat is to get your heart pumping. You need to move, break a light sweat, increase your heart rate and be a little out of breath. This means, brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, skiing, jump roping, doing power yoga, using an elliptical machine, rowing, having sex or anything else…for 20-40 minutes AT LEAST three times a week. You may have a six-pack under that belly, but you gotta burn off the fat to uncover it. Plus, cardio-vascular exercise is good for your heart and lung health, and the endorphins make you feel happy and reduce the symptoms of depression. I am not providing any additional links for this because frankly, if you search the internet, you will find as many articles that say that cardio does burn fat as you will articles that say it has not effect. Personally, I think the articles that say that you can burn off your belly without doing cardio are just trying to appeal to the millions of people who don’t want to do it. Worst case scenario, you do thirty minutes of one of the above exercises three times a week, you will be healthier and feel better. Best case, you will uncover that long-lost six-pack!
- Ab Exercises. Okay, here is what you really want to know. What exercises can you do to REALLY target belly fat? Frankly, you can do traditional crunches till you are blue in the face, and you will never get a six-pack. This is not because crunches are ineffective, but simply because most people don’t do them correctly, and because they only target a portion of your abdominal muscles. Joseph Pilates took the best of yoga and dance and created highly efficient exercises that target the core. These exercises work all of the six pack and the love handles. While I would advise you to do the entire one-hour yoga/pilates routines I teach for the best results, this 30-minute targeted routine is a great way to build muscle and tone your tummy. A trainer in a gym teased my once that I was obsessed with abs work, but I said maintenance was easier than correction. If you are one of those people who has a flat tummy without exercise, it is still a good idea to work you abs to help keep your abs strong and flat even after pregnancy or as you get older; good genes will only get you so far.
- Breathing. Part of the problem with the way most people do crunches is that they fail to incorporate breathing. Humor me for a second. Take deep breath in through your nose and then exhale sharply through your mouth. No, not like you are blowing out birthday candles…don’t puff out your cheeks, instead purse your lips and blow sharply. Try again. Do you feel that contraction deep in your belly? Those are your transversus abs. They are like a girdle running around your entire mid-section and you know what girdles do, right? Hold you in! Tone those transversus abs and they will help keep your belly flat. You will also strengthen your low back and reduce pain there. So, when you are doing your regular crunches, when you are holding plank, when you are doing the above abdominal routine, inhale through your nose, and exhale sharply through your mouth. I had a Pilates teacher that said that if you weren’t breathing during the 100’s, you were missing 90% of the exercise.
- Posture. Most of my classes start with helping my students standing properly. This is not just about what my mother always said to me, “Stand up straight. Pull your shoulders back.” It is more to do with your hips and pelvis. Many women, in particular, have a habit of standing and walking with an exaggerated curve in their lower backs with their busts and their bums sticking out. unfortunately, in addition to causing straining the lower back, it exaggerates the belly. Take a look a this picture:
(Source: http://posturedirect.com/advanced-anterior-pelvic-tilt-exercises/)In the first picture, she is standing with her pelvis in neutral, in the second, she has tilted her pelvis and you can see the deep curve in her low back and her belly sticking out. You can check out your own posture by simply standing in front of a full length mirror, and looking at your profile. Put your hands on your hips. Now, tilt your pelvis forward, now tilt your pelvis back. Now find neutral. Do you see a difference? This won’t actually CHANGE your tummy, but practice standing with your pelvis in a neutral position to keep your belly looking as flat as possible.
A note about pregnancy. Once you are out of your first trimester, you cannot do those crunching Pilates exercises, so stop them in favor of a good pre-natal yoga practice. If you have a C-section, you will need to wait until you are healed, but then you can start-up again and get back your pre-pregnancy tummy.
If you have had a hysterectomy or appendectomy, you may need to avoid crunching exercises, so listen to your doctor’s advice and wait until you are healed.
You will notice a difference over time–not over night. You will lose inches, and you will get a flatter tummy. However, please be realistic and recognize you will reach your best, but that is not necessarily a six-pack especially depending on your age, past pregnancies, past surgeries and your own genetic make-up. For those of you women blessed with more curves than I have, your hips, glutes and breasts are not your tummy. You can have a firm and healthy tummy as well as nice, full hips. But also remember, these tips are just good health regardless of your waistline.
Happiness is NOT defined by a flat stomach, but good health certainly includes a reduction of unhealthy belly fat, and done regularly, long-term, these steps can help you be the healthiest and happiest human you can be!
** AS ALWAYS, CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR OR HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE BEGINNING ANY EXERCISE PROGRAM. I AM A CERTIFIED YOGA INSTRUCTOR, BUT I AM NOT A DOCTOR OR NUTRITIONIST. THESE ARE MY OWN OPINIONS BASED ON READING, MY OWN PRACTICE AND WHAT I HAVE OBSERVED WITH MY CLIENTS. INDIVIDUAL RESULTS WILL VARY.**