Thursday, June 19, 2008

Abs of steel (just kidding)

Yesterday my Pilates instructor complimented me on my toned muscles in my waist and sides. She said she could really see a difference in me, and asked if I had lost weight.

Are you kidding?

Now, I've been doing this class for almost two years (since it started in the fall of 2006), and while I do think I have made a lot of progress in core strength and muscle tone over the months, I'm not convince that there has been any dramatic recent change. (Could I possible attribute my spring weight gain to muscle gain instead? Yeah, that's the ticket!)

This Pilates class is really a boot camp type of Pilates, with endless ab work, and it's not for the faint of heart. (There is a devoted following, but newbies are often seen lying helplessly on the floor after a few rounds of leg raises, oblique twists, etc.) The instructor is constantly yelling at us to improve our form. (And she lies! "Last set" is never the last, it just morphs into another variation of torture.)

Lately she's incorporated a small ball into most of the exercises which just increases the difficulty and awkwardness.

So when she complimented me on my muscles I did wonder whether she might just be encouraging me so I don't drop out in despair. But I'm confident she was sincere, just not confident she was right! I sucked my gut in as she poked at me, hoping that she wouldn't feel the roll of flab above my midriff. (It's true that my lower abdomen is quite firm--god knows what's in there--but there is that persistent cinnamon roll that has no muscles in it whatsoever, therefore no hope of ever going away completely. Even if I could suck the fat out, the jiggly skin would undoubtedly remain. (Okay, too much information now.)

This has led me to dwell on the strange expansion of waist sizes among Americans (and Japanese, for that matter), specifically women.* Oh, I know we are fatter than we used to be. And of course it is historically typical that men get a big belly when they gain weight. But since when has it been common for women to have a waist size comparable to their hip size?

I look back to when I was a teenager. I was not a skinny teenager, but I always had a pretty flat stomach and smallish waist. I think it was about 26" when I was in my thin phases, and 28-30" when I gained weight. That was when I was "fat." Of course, I could never compare to my mother, who in her 20's was a Scarlett-O'Hara-like freak with a 22-inch waist. That was always the standard to measure against. (She did not maintain that 22-inch waist. But even when she was much heavier she still had an hourglass figure.)

Nowadays, even with Pilates and running and a low-carb diet, my waist is 30 inches on a good day (with the tape measure pulled tightly). I might be able to shed an inch or two if I lost enough weight, but I realize that with my age and everything my body has gone through in the last 40 years, I will never have a teenage slim waist again.

But that's me. What about the rest of the world? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average waist size for American women is 36.5. (The average waist size for men is 39 inches.) In Japan, where apparently it is common for women to have bigger waists than men, the government has set a health standard of 33.5 inches for men, and 35.4 inches for women. I have wondered if part of the reason for the increase may be a change in the way of measuring the waist; I have always measured at the smallest point (doesn't that make sense?), while some instructions say to measure at or below the belly button. This article, which has some very helpful information, says to measure at the narrowest part, which is "usually even with your navel." Hmmm, not for me.

Still, if the average waist measurement for women is 36.5", when you take all the non-pregnant Hollywood actresses into account, there are a lot of women who are bigger than 36.5". There are a lot of apples out there. And healthwise, these apples with belly fat (also called, more ominously, visceral fat) are at a higher risk for heart disease and other inflammation-related conditions.

How to decrease belly fat? Not surprisingly, cardio exercise and a diet low in high glycemic foods seem to help. From my own experience, eating protein, vegetables, low glycemic fruits and whole grains, and restricting sugars and simple carbs has been the most successful diet to lose weight and fat. Since my belly fat is more of an irritation than a major weight issue, I can't really speak to whether you lose belly fat first on a low carb diet, as South Beach proponents claim.

I also suspect (and have found some literature supporting this) that the vast consumption of high fructose corn syrup, both in soft drinks and foods of all kinds, is promoting not only weight gain but waist gain. Fructose appears to make cells resistant to insulin, and prevents the body from feeling full, in the way that other carbohydrates do.

While cardio exercise is important in shedding fat, ab exercises like crunches will not, on their own, get rid of belly flab. So despite all my "good work" in Pilates, I still need to watch what I eat and keep up the running if I want to decrease that cinnamon roll!

*I should say at this point that I have absolutely no training or qualifications to express these opinions. These are, in fact, my opinions, supported by various internet and magazine articles I have read from time to time. My only credentials are my own experiences with fat, weight loss, and exercise (all of which I must say are extensive).

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