Belly Flop

Donald NorfolkIt’s a sad reflection on our contemporary way of life, that so very few people look good in beachwear once they’ve passed middle age. The torsos of most children are straight and trim, but as they age their figures invariably become marred by flabby muscles, postural defects and excessive fat deposits. The most common of these defects – regularly displayed on even the trendy playgrounds of St Tropez and Acapulco – is the bulging, bow-fronted belly. This is both an aesthetic disaster and a major health hazard. If your work is sedentary, it’s more than likely that you’ve allowed your tummy muscles to grow a trifle slack. If so, it’s time you took yourself in hand, by carrying out a simple exercise which offers five, distinct health benefits.

In the first place you’ll gain self-esteem if your take steps to make your stomach look more like a washboard than an overloaded sack of dirty washing. With a tighter, flatter tummy you’ll also improve your deportment. The commonest postural fault from middle age onward is the development of a lordosis, or hollow back. This arises when the abdominal muscles are weak, which allows the pelvis to rotate forward, throwing the back into a hollow, exaggerating the postural curves and making the derriere more prominent than it was ever meant to be.

Strengthening the abdominal muscles also protects the spine from lifting strains. When we hoist heavy weights the muscles of the diaphragm and belly wall are forcefully contracted. This drives the largely liquid contents of the abdomen against the spine, driving the back upwards in the fashion of a hydraulic jack. The stronger this action, the less the strain imposed on the back and spinal muscles. This explains why weight lifters wear a belt when they’re raising massively loaded barbells, and why elderly men give such a loud grunt when they pick up a hefty suitcase. With their weak spines, they’re forced to be extra reliant on the lifting action of their belly muscles, and so they can’t avoid a sigh of relief when

their task is done.

Another benefit of having a well-toned belly is that it acts as an aid to respiration. The lungs can’t achieve a full intake of fresh air unless it has expelled the stale air from its multitude of air sacs or alveoli. (It’s said that the lungs contain 300 million alveoli, but that’s probably no more than an inspired guess because I’ve seen other estimates which put the figure as high as 750 million.) This ‘expiratory backstroke’ is achieved by relaxing the diaphragm and then driving it upwards by a powerful contraction of the stomach wall.

A strong, ‘washboard’ abdomen also prevents the gut sagging forward, a condition which used to be known as ‘visceroptosis’. We have a framework of ribs to protect our heart and lungs, but only a layer of muscles to support our vital digestive organs. When the belly wall is tight, the abdominal contents rest easily within the pelvic basin. When they’re flabby, the gut sags forward, which can impair the general circulation as well as the function of the gastric organs. However powerful the pumping action of the heart, it can only expel the volume of blood returned to it through the venous network. One of the side effects of visceroptosis is a pooling of blood in the abdomen. Tests show that correcting the forward displacement of the stomach with an abdominal belt can speed the circulation of the blood by as much as 40 percent. But why resort to wearing a cumbersome belt, when you can develop your own muscular corset?

Most fitness routines contain exercises to strengthen the tummy muscles. Many require special equipment or the assistance of a partner, but there’s one that’s needs no outside aids and is simplicity itself. It’s known to fitness buffs as an ‘abdominal retraction’, which merely means drawing in the tummy wall in an effort to pin the navel against the spine. This can be done at odd times during the day: in the early morning when looking into the bathroom mirror, or later on while waiting for a bus, or standing in line in a check-out queue. Tone your tummy muscles by the regular practice of this simple exercise and you’ll improve your appearance, increase your strength and enhance your general well-being.

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