Posted On Feb 12, 2017
Great abs offer more than improved looks, according to Kathy Smith. They are the foundation of full-on fitness, keeping your entire body anchored and ready for performance.
BY LINDA BROCKMAN
We see photos of Demi Moore and Jennifer Aniston in bikinis and wonder: Can I look that great in a bikini after 40? “Absolutely,” says fitness expert Kathy Smith. Just be realistic about it, she urges. “After 40, it may not be about having washboard abs. Working out abdominal muscles is to strengthen your core—something that becomes more important as we age.” A strong core is the key to staying active. At 62, Smith proves this every day. Smith recently scaled Grouse Mountain near Vancouver, via a trail called the Grouse Grind—1.8 miles straight up. This trail is also known as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster,” with 2,830 stairs. This trek is nearly impossible without very sturdy abs. For Smith, it was just another invigorating new challenge.
The most important moves to do as we age are for strengthening the core. Smith calls it the body’s “command center,” protecting and supporting the rest of the body. “If your core is unhealthy, it will compromise the health of your entire system,” she says. “It’s the place where all movement is initiated, and the source of our bodies’ deepest powers.
It’s also the factor that determines whether we move freely and with ease, or whether we’re weighed down by aches and pains.” A strong core makes everything easier—each bike ride, run, and walk. “Working on your core is symbolic of so much,” she insists. “If you work to get really strong and maintain a strong core, flat abs are going to follow.” A strong core is so important that it actually affects your skin. Even if your skin— after pregnancy and a handful of decades on planet Earth—has lost collagen, becoming looser and thinner, exercise can help. Crunches tighten up the muscle under skin and give it a tighter look.
Dr. Robert Sallis, sports medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, California and former president of the American College of Sports Medicine, agrees that strengthening core muscles is helpful in so many ways. “Core strength is critical because it helps support your extremities, back, and neck while improving your posture,” he says.
“A weak core can set you up for a host of injuries, most commonly involving the knee, hip, back, and shoulder.” Dr. Sallis cites Smith as a shining example of lifelong fitness. According to him, achieving and maintaining a sculpted-abs look “will take more work as you get older but is not impossible.” “As we age, our metabolism inevitably slows,” says Dr. Sallis. “We burn fewer calories and lose muscle mass. We need to eat a little less and work a bit harder to maintain good function and prevent injury.”
HELLO POSTURE, GOODBYE COMPRESSION GEAR
Core muscles are key for optimal posture. By retraining your posture, abdominal muscles act as built-in Spanx, according to Smith. Her posture test goes like this: Stand in the mirror. Look at your ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle on one side of the body. “Imagine a line dropping from your ear,” she says. “Does it hit your shoulder and hip? That’s a gauge of good posture. When you slump, you look heavier. When you stand up straight and engage the abs, you look slimmer.”
FIRE IN THE BELLY
Even if you engage in tons of quality core work, you won’t see the results you’re after unless you burn off that top layer of fat with aerobic activity and proper nutrition. Keep in mind, there are two types of fat: subcutaneous, on top of muscle and beneath the skin, and visceral fat, deposited in the peritoneal cavity. Visceral fat resides between organs and contributes to belly fat.
“Visceral fat cells act as an endocrine organ, sending fatty acids into the bloodstream,” says Smith. This in turn contributes to heightened cholesterol. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that people with high levels of visceral fat are three times as likely to develop precancerous polyps in the colon. “Visceral fat may also lead to an increase in the production of angiotensin—a hormone that raises blood pressure—and cytokines, proteins that have been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and major depression.”
BLAST ABS FAST
You can do a million crunches and they won’t get you the sexy look you desire. Why? Because you must work out all three sets of the abdominal muscles: the rectus abdominis, which runs from the rib cage to the hips; the obliques, which pull in the waistline; and the transverse abdominis, the core muscle that spans the midsection.
The rectus abdominis can be improved with crunches, or any move that brings the shoulders close to the hips. Working out the obliques with rotating movements such as bicycle crunches or side planks helps trim sides. When you suck in your stomach, you’re engaging your transverse abdominis. (“Pretend that you’re squeezing into a tight pair of jeans,” says Smith.) Repeat this two to three times a week.
Forearm Plank with Swivel
Start in a plank position, resting on your elbows. Keep the shoulders back and down and the neck nice and long throughout the movement. Beginners may rest on the knees instead of a full plank.
Keeping your abs engaged, slowly swivel the hips underneath you to the right. Feel your obliques driving this motion as you swivel to the other side with a slow, controlled motion.
To work the obliques, sit upright with knees bent, feet on the floor, chest lifted.
Lift your feet off the floor, tucking your knees into your chest.
Interlace your fingers and point them forward.
Swivel your knees side to side. Lift your chest and spine straight, making sure not to slump. If this seems too challenging, place your hands on the floor. If the side-to-side movement is too challenging, start by just balancing with your feet off the floor before adding the swivel.
CIRCULATION SHAKEUP & POWER POSTURE
Here’s a strong move from Smith that will improve circulation, muscle awareness, and elimination. Standing up, press your hands on your lower thighs, lean forward, exhale, and scoop your belly in through the rib cage to round your back. By doing this simple posture exercise—which takes one minute a day—you can look 10 pounds thinner. Here, Smith offers a good at-home technique to check the position of your pelvis.
– While standing, tip the pelvis under then arch your back.
– Drop to a neutral position and notice where you’re standing naturally.
– Round the shoulders and then retract. To strengthen your core and improve the integrity of your posture while sitting at a desk or computer:
– Sit in a chair on the sit bones and imagine a fresh coat of paint on the back of the chair. If you sit up straight to avoid the imaginary paint, you engage your core-strengthening muscles by using your body, not the chair, to support your posture.
THE VELVET ROPE DIET
To nourish a healthy core, and healthy overall body, think of yourself as the bouncer at a club: If food is not nutritionally worthy of entrance, then it shouldn’t get past the door.
The top of the guest list: Protein. “Protein is the most important nutritional element for molding your body into the shape you desire,” Smith says. “Proteins are broken down by the body into amino acids. They repair and rebuild muscle tissues, grow hair and nails, create enzymes and hormones, maintain the health of internal organs and blood, and break down fat.”
Make sure you amp up your fiber intake, too, because fiber keeps you sated and maximizes the metabolism. “It allows the digestion of food to slow to a speed that supports muscle feeding and fat shrinking.” Smith suggests pairing a protein (fish, eggs, chicken, nuts) with fiber (vegetables, fruit, wheat bran) to help you feel full longer. A typical breakfast for Smith is a “Strawberry Surprise” smoothie, with a scoop of vanilla protein powder, a cup of almond milk, a cup of fresh or frozen strawberries, and a tablespoon of flaxseed oil or omega-3 fish oil supplement.
For lunch, she has a salad with vegetables and garbanzo beans, or curried chicken salad over greens. For a snack, Smith grabs cottage cheese in a cucumber boat topped with walnuts. She also has a daily Green Machine smoothie that is packed with nutrients.
At dinner, she and her family often opt for baked fish paired with fresh vegetables on the side that are steamed and tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and a little sea salt. In addition to smart food choices, an overlooked factor in attaining flat abs is the creation of a healthy internal environment. Basically, give what went in a healthy exit strategy.
“You’re not going to have flat abs without proper elimination,” says Smith. In other words, if you’re not experiencing regular bowel movements, you’ll have bloat. Additional fiber will prove flat-belly favorable in your fourth decade and beyond.