The Elusive Flat Belly

According to almost every single women's magazine cover (and men's, too!) the quest for a flat belly has to be up there in the top five most reported stories. You can find entire books devoted to specific diets designed to flatten the belly. And most fitness magazines run an article at least every other month on exercises just to obtain the highly desirable yet ever elusive flattened abdominal region.

What do we really mean when we discuss a "flat" belly? Do we mean a 6-pack? Chiseled and defined rectus abdominus muscles? Or the lack of protrusion in a forward direction? A strong core? A skinny middle section?

Let's start by discussing problems which may prevent a person from enjoying a flat stomach:

Underdeveloped, weak abdominal muscles could be a factor here. Pregnancy, rapid weight gain, injury, surgery, and other insults to the abdominal region could play a part in weakening the muscles that define the abdominal wall. If these muscles have been injured due to any of the above, please check with your doctor before attempting any strengthening exercises. It will take time, patience, and slow progress to heal the damage and repair the muscle tissue. Doing too much too quickly could result in more serious injury, so do a little at a time, every day.

An over-pronounced lumbar curve of the spine (low back) can also be a factor. A protruding belly can simply be the result of poor posture. This is definitely fixable, but it will take ongoing attention. Strengthening the abdominal muscles will certainly help, but if you are in the habit of continuously overarching the lumbar spine, you will also need to constantly remind yourself to correct this habit. You may have shortened low back muscles and/or hip flexors, and in this case you will also need to employ daily relaxation and stretching of these muscles. Basic yoga postures are great for this.

Excess overall body fat will also hinder the development of a flat belly. Because we are all unique individuals, some of us will tend more than others to put on fat around our middles. (Think about your typical guy with a beer belly.) Fat around the abdomen can also be related to stress. High levels of cortisol (a hormone related to stress) in the blood will often result in increased abdominal fat.

A factor you may not have taken into account is gas. (Now headed into the realm of TMI!) If you are eating foods which disagree with you, which are difficult for you to digest, you may be experiencing some bloating in the belly due to excess gas. I have noticed that when I eat no grains at all, my belly is much flatter. Even a small amount of wheat can cause ugly bloating for me. Foods that typically cause allergies are the ones you want to watch out for. These include wheat, soy, dairy, and corn. (You might find others, as well.) Experiment with cutting back or eliminating the foods you think might be responsible and see what happens.

If you are truly committed to your quest for a flat belly, go through the above list, item by item, and remove the obstacles which are preventing you from reaching your goal. Eliminate the foods which are irritating your system and causing the bloat. Begin a regular exercise program for burning overall body fat. Walking, jogging, swimming, rowing, or anything aerobic will do! Sign up for a yoga class to help reduce stress and also to stretch out tight muscles which could be forcing your belly to protrude. While you're at it, also sign up for a Pilates matwork class which will focus on strengthening your core, including all the abdominal muscles. A flat belly is just around the corner!