The Abdominal Craze, Perception, and the Art of Observation

It seems as though all of the experts have come out of the closet to endorse the seemingly endless variety of abdominal machines these days. It is amazing that over the millions of years of evolution, the hundred years of classic physical education, and the two decades of the fitness revolution, we have ignored the fact that we cannot have slim, toned and properly aligned abdominal muscles without the assistance of a rocking machine or big round ball, and a plethora of professionals to tell us how to accomplish this task.
I am not finger-wagging at the professionals who have endorsed their products, as the fitness revolution has been in part a slave to marketing and advertising. Names like Nike and Reebok would not be household names if not for the power of the media.

My point is derived from my own observation of what we are seeking to achieve versus what we are actually doing. My observation stems from my days in Anatomy and Physiology, when my astute mentor, and educator for over a half century, Professor Jean Cione explained the basic action of this group of muscles.

The abdominal muscles serve basically two purposes – the first is posture maintenance of the spine, and the second is respiration. Although I did not obtain an A+ in her class, I did not fall asleep during this section. Nowhere did she state that the abdominal region was involved with glamour, sexuality, or excessive caloric consumption (we leave this up to the eye of the beholder).

An extremely astute observer of the human form, she noted that one very good way of developing the abdominal region was in static contractions. To illustrate her point, she noted that a colleague of hers in graduate school who suffered from chronic back problems help to alleviate the condition by performing a static abdominal contraction for 5 seconds every time he walked though a doorway. After a period of 3-4 weeks, his back problem has disappeared, and over time, his abdominal region has become rock-hard.

This example is told only to illustrate a point. We are caught up in a feeding frenzy of sorts, as the airways are bombarded with over a half dozen ways to improve our glamour, sexuality, and caloric consumption by only buying and regularly performing abdominal exercises with a special machine.

Why is this so popular? Sports medicine specialist Dr. Sal Arria has pointed out that in the world of home videos, the three things that sell the most are: weight loss products, beauty enhancers, and of course, sex. Combine those three and no doubt that sales will be brisk. This is why so many of these products do exist. They contain promises of two out of the three marketing devises. Perhaps when the first ab commercial comes out with a Victoria Secret’s model, we will achieve truly miraculous sales.

Most fitness professionals know that one good set of leg press or squat exercises will burn more calories that a 100 crunches. This is because there is more nervous system involvement in squatting, and it therefore uses more energy. We also are aware that a long-term program of combining moderate daily aerobic exercise (for increased caloric use), and a strength training program using all of the major muscle groups (to tone, improve posture, maintain lean body mass, and burn calories at rest) are the major components of a well balanced exercise program.

So why the craze with the abdominal machines? To start Ð it is not the problem of the experts. Low back pain is epidemic in this country. One of the main reasons is poor posture. Proper abdominal exercises strengthen the trunk area and help create a more linear spine, alleviating some of the pressure against the nerves coming out of the vertebral column, and positioning the muscles and connective tissue in the low back region to settle in place better. Of course there may be some commission involved here, too. That’s OK. The problem with all of this hype is that people will think that this is the only exercise that they need to do in order to achieve slimness, enhanced beauty, and perhaps a mate. It is also interesting to note that those persons with the best physiques (models, actors, etc.) do not buy and large use these products. They also do not have the best diets. So what conclusions to we draw from this? First Ð the genetic component gives the basic framework. Thin will always be in for persons with the basic body type. Second Ð The type of exercise is important for obtaining the best results. Doing ab machine crunches every day may not be as beneficial as daily walking along with a complete strength training routine.

So, here is my humble message to Mr. and Mrs. America, who have watched with interest (and perhaps a bit of skepticism), the barrage of infomercials about the world’s best exercise product. If you think you will lose dozens of pounds of unwanted baggage, you won’t. It will come much quicker if you bypass the Girl Scout cookies that you bought this month from your neighbor’s daughter. Also Ð if you don’t think that the $50 offered is worth the price of a slim and trim waistline, try the regular walking program and contracting your abs every time you walk under a door jam. Chances are you may perform hundreds of contraction a day, and after a few weeks, you will notice a change in the tonus of your waist. Or, you can look at the barrage on TV and wonder why you haven’t joined in the abdominal revolution. Perhaps you should buy now before a new piece of equipment comes along with more spokespersons telling us how it can improve our health.

Any piece of exercise equipment will help in improving some aspect of posture, strength, and tone. However, with a bit of observation, we will learn that not one machine can do it all. Sometimes not using machines may be the best way to achieve success, as the crutch that enslaves us may have been lifted, and we are free to go about our own best method of achieving our goals. As the selection of channels to advertise these products increases, our powers of observation will be called upon to be ever keener. I hope that we can develop our powers of decision-making as much as we may need to develop our waistline.

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Written by Eric P. Durak MSc

Explore Wellness in 2021