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Great abs could be hiding under layers of skin, fat

March 19, 1997

Cardiologist says the way to a flatter stomach is through aerobic exercise

James Phillips / The Baylor Lariat

Becca Bryan, a Bryan sophomore, strengthens her abdominal muscles by doing crunches at Goebel Building on Tuesday afternoon.



By Melissa Harlow

Lariat Reporter

Nobody wants to bring a belly to the beach, and as summer approaches, that's all the persuasion anyone needs to get tangled up in an abdominal exercise machine.

It seems as though it's not enough to be thin anymore. Now one must not only resemble the full page newspaper ads for Calvin Klein and anorexic models filing down the fashion runways--everyone has to have 'great abs.'

But before strapping yourself into some torture device that promises a perfect stomach, there's something you should know. Building abdominal muscles under a layer of fat can actually make a person appear fatter.

'People who think they are going to buy an ab machine and suddenly have a washboard stomach are misinformed,' said Dr. James Rippe, cardiologist. If you want your ab muscles to appear, you need to lose a large percentage of body fat, he said in a USA Today story published last winter.

When the body loses fat, it loses a small percentage of it from all areas. Muscle under fat only pushes the fat farther out. That's why so many people who exercise suddenly find their pants hard to button after going on an abdominal workout binge.

Such results are caused, in part, by the fact that focusing on reducing a particular spot is not possible and cannot be altered by any new invention in exercise equipment.

Despite this fact, the chisel of choice in the '90s remains the abdominal workout equipment, which is pushed relentlessly through late-night TV commercials--all of which advertise how you too can have that washboard look in just 6 minutes a day!

There's the Ab-Isolator, the Ab-Sculptor, the Body by Jake Ab and Back Flex, the Abworks, the Ab Trainer. . .the list goes on.

Why is there such a fascination with physical appearance? Why do so many individuals buy into the need to resemble a mold their bodies were not created to fit?

It is often noted, Rippe told USA Today, that modern American capitalists will create a need where none exists, then rush in with products designed to meet it. In fact, the nation now boasts a $145 million-a-year market in abdominal exercise equipment.

The exercises that burn fat fastest are aerobic exercises. So if someone is seeking a flatter stomach, the best way to get one is not with an abdominal workout, but with an aerobic one, Rippe said.

Don't do sit-ups without first running, biking, swimming or doing something to get your heart rate up over a sustained period of time--at least 20 minutes three times a week, Rippe said. Or go on a sensible diet.

Jim Yood, a Renaissance art historian at Northwestern University, said in a recent issue of USA Today, 'Clearly, the cult of health and body image has hit.'

In the history of Western art, he said, there's been nothing like this ideal. Even Michelangelo couldn't sculpt a waistline like those on today's fitness pros, he said.

Nordic Track, best known for its cross-country ski exercise machines, introduced an abdominal exercise machine in February 1996. And for most people, these aerobic exercise machines are actually more effective in reducing fat, said Amy Carlson of Nordic Track in an Internet health article. Nearly 2.5 million ab machines were sold in 1996, according to Nordic Track.

'Ours gives head and back support; you can't help but do the crunches properly with it,' Carlson said.

But if you do crunches properly at home, you don't need a machine, she said.

Nevertheless, ab products will sell in excess of $400 million in the next year, said Greg Renker, a TV marketer, in a USA Today interview.

'It is the fastest-selling product I have ever seen, and I've been in the business for over 10 years. It is the Hula-Hoop of the 90's,' he said.

How did we become so concerned with our bellies? Men as well as women want not just flat stomachs but hard, muscled ones. And it is this unconscious manipulation that has altered the popular notion of what constitutes beauty.

Pop culture, said Rippe, presents the only art we have in American visual culture. And pop culture, whether it's the navel-baring female stars on hit sitcoms such as Friends, the muscled hunks on Baywatch or Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking his way through a movie, like abs of steel, Rippe said.

'Diet and cardio exercise go hand in hand. Everyone has a six-pack, or a four-pack, but it is that layer of fat and skin which covers it up. Routine exercise and healthy eating can take care of that. More importantly, strong abs support the back and reduce back pains,' said John Cafarella, club manager at Worlds Gym in Waco.

Beauty is in the eye of the camera, and the camera is focusing on the belly. In society today, if you don't have one, it symbolizes that you probably have other things in abundance--fitness, beauty, and of course, money.

If money is no object and if aerobics sounds like a good idea, the University has a program devoted entirely to aerobics. There are more than 30 classes each week ranging from cardio to water to step aerobics, and workouts begin at 5 p.m.

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