So you want to flatten your belly. Time to hit the floor for a zillion crunches, right? Not so fast. Power crunching alone isn't necessarily the best—and certainly not the most enjoyable—way to flatten your belly. When we talked to dozens of people, just like you, who've toned their abs, we discovered their secrets to a flat belly include fun activities such as gardening, tennis, and dancing—with some crunches in between for good measure. Leading weight loss and fitness experts also suggest some simple lifestyle changes to provide you with a complete belly-flattening program.
So if you're sick of crunches—or not getting the results you want—read on for 41 surprising ways to get a belly worth baring.
10 Habits That Will Shrink Your Middle
1. Calm down. Too much stress can contribute to a potbelly. Stress increases levels of cortisol, a hormone that seems to direct fat to our middle, says Jacob Seidell, PhD, of the National Institute of Public Health in Bilthoven, Netherlands. To keep levels low, try this 5- to 10-minute stress reducer: Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Next, take several slow, deep breaths to help clear your mind. Continue breathing deeply and repeat the word "one" to yourself as you exhale. (If you get distracted, just bring your focus back to the word "one.") Practice this for 5 to 10 minutes once or twice a day.
2. Skip the alcohol. That glass of wine with dinner may be part of the reason your jeans are too tight. Alcohol also tends to raise cortisol levels, sending fat to your belly, Dr. Seidell says.
3. Stop smoking. "It keeps me thin," proclaim many smokers. But the truth is that smokers tend to have more abdominal fat than nonsmokers, says Dr. Seidell. (The stress hormone cortisol seems to be the culprit here too.) "When people stop smoking, the amount of abdominal fat actually decreases," he says.
4. Eat more fiber. Not only is fiber great for overall weight loss (it fills you up so you don't eat as much), it also prevents constipation, which can cause your tummy to bulge, says Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, a gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. To stay regular, aim for 22 to 25 g of fiber a day by eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; or try a fiber supplement such as Metamucil.
5. Drink up. For premenstrual bloating, drink lots and lots of water. This will actually help flush away bloating, not make it worse. [pagebreak]
6. Keep bones strong. Osteoporosis can lead to fractured bones in your spine, causing you to slump. That shortens your abdominal cavity, giving your belly no place to go but out, says Willibald Nagler, MD, physiatrist in chief emeritus at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. If you're age 50 or over, be sure to get 1,200 mg of calcium every day from the foods you eat and/or from supplements. (If you're age 50 or younger, 1,000 mg a day is the ticket.)
7. Get your heart rate up. All the ab exercises in the world won't do a thing unless you get rid of the fat hiding your abdominal muscles. The best way is aerobic exercise for 45 to 60 minutes, five times a week. When Barbara Taylor, 50, of Pasadena, CA, started running, walking, or stairclimbing for about 1 hour, five days a week, she did more than just uncover her abs. She went from a size 16 to a size 4 and lost more than 60 pounds.
8. Tuck that tummy. Jeanette Friedman, 54, of Austin, TX, suggests imagining there's a "magnet pulling your belly button back toward your spine. Practice the tuck until it becomes comfortable, and soon it will come naturally—like breathing," she says. "Do it every chance you get. That's how habits start."
9. Hit the weights. That's what worked for Angela Susi, 50, of Vancouver, BC, who lost about 5 inches from her waist and plummeted from a size 12 to a size 3. "I was able to wear my first bikini in 20 years," she says. "It was like a great unveiling! My abs are leaner, with more definition." For similar results, aim for two or three weight workouts a week.
10. Get a bonus ab workout. Stand as much as possible when doing weight-lifting exercises. That way your abs work too. "They help to balance and stabilize your body," says Tammy Strunk, an Emmaus, PA, fitness instructor. Concentrate on keeping your abs tight and maintaining good posture, but don't hold your breath.
Perfect Posture = Flat Tummy: 6 Tips
1. Stand up straight. Heeding Mom's advice can make you look 5 pounds thinner (and your abs flatter) instantly. To straighten up, imagine a string tugging you from the top of your head toward the ceiling.
2. Sit like a royal. Slumping accentuates your stomach. To improve your posture while sitting, start with your chair. If your chair seat is too high to let your feet touch the ground without slumping, find a footstool about 4 inches high to let you sit up straight. Or place a pillow at the small of your back to help bring you forward in your chair.[pagebreak]
3. Strengthen your shoulders. Strong shoulders will prevent you from hunching forward. To target this area, try the overhead press. Start with dumbbells at shoulder height, feet firmly on the floor. Slowly press the dumbbells straight up until your arms are fully extended. Don't arch your back. Hold, and then lower.
4. Build your chest. Good posture is easier when you have strong upper body muscles. For the chest, do the bench press: Lie on an exercise bench with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor or on the bench. Hold dumbbells or a barbell at chest height with your hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Slowly press the weight straight up until your arms are fully extended, elbows almost locked. Hold, and then lower.
5. Work your mid-to upper back. These muscles are also important for good posture. The bent-over row exercise is a great way to strengthen them. To do it: Place your left knee and left hand on a flat bench or chair so your back is parallel to the floor. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, start with your right arm directly under your shoulder and extended toward the floor. Bending your elbow so that it's pointing toward the ceiling, pull the dumbbell up until it touches your rib cage. Hold, and slowly lower. (The movement is like starting a power lawn mower, only slower and smoother.)
6. Target your lower back. To stand tall, you need to strengthen the muscles that support your spine. To do that, try this exercise: Lie on your stomach with a rolled towel under your forehead. Clasp your hands behind your waist and slowly lift your head and shoulders off the floor, pinching the shoulder blades together. Only go as far as comfortable. Hold, then release.
13 Activities That Will Slim Your Waistline
1. Make a tennis date. A few sets of backhands and forehands, and you'll feel it around your middle. "Every time you turn to make a stroke," says Dr. Nagler, "you strengthen the oblique muscles on either side of your abdomen."
2. Vacuum the house. Dust-free floors won't be the only benefit. Pushing the vacuum cleaner back and forth helps tighten your abs, says Dr. Nagler. Self-propelled models don't count!
3. Get out and garden. George DeVault, 56, of Emmaus, PA, attributes his flat stomach (he lost about 2 inches off his waist in a month!) to all the bending, lifting, pulling, pushing, and digging. The spinal twist and abdominal contractions while digging are a particularly good ab workout, Dr. Nagler adds.
4. Strike a pose. Chris Jensen, from Huntington Beach, CA, has been doing yoga daily for over 20 years. "I started it because I wanted to relax," she says. "But I also began noticing subtle changes, such as tightening and strengthening of my ab muscles, within four months." [pagebreak]
5. Try Callanetics. Gale Maleskey, 53, of Emmaus, PA, swears by this program. It helped her maintain a 28-inch waist. "After just two weeks, I realized I was tightening up." Callanetics crunches resemble most others, but there's a subtle difference: A very slight, gentle pulsing motion keeps your ab muscles continuously contracted. Callanetics DVDs are available at amazon.com.
6. Go for a swim. "A vigorous crawl stroke is a wonderful way to tighten the abs," Dr. Nagler says. "Due to the fact that you have to breathe out forcefully underwater, your abdominal muscles contract even better. The reaching-forward and pulling-back strokes of the butterfly are great ab toners too."
7. Move those hips! Remember how much fun you had as a kid swiveling your hips inside a hula hoop? Turns out, this late-'50s fad is an excellent waist slimmer. The longer and more often you do it, the better the results.
8. Paddle off your paunch. Forty-five-year-old Erin Bethea from Akron, OH, attributes her lean tummy to kayaking. When you paddle, she explains, you twist your whole torso. The power comes from your abdominal muscles. "Using proper technique keeps your abs constantly moving," she says. And to sit erect and paddle a kayak properly, you need to keep your ab muscles taut--sometimes for several hours at a time!
9. Play a few holes. Swinging a golf club shapes up the oblique muscles on the sides of your abs, says Dr. Nagler. After 9 or 18 holes, that's a workout! (For an aerobic workout, skip the cart.)
10. Give boxing a whirl. Aerobic kick-boxing is more than just a great fat-burning, cardio workout. All those arm thrusts and high kicks firm abs too.
11. Do a little dance. Jeanette Friedman tells us that daily belly dancing has helped her maintain her svelte 24-inch waist for years and get back in shape after having two kids. "I started working my abs right in the hospital after my babies were born," she says. "It worked wonders!"
12. Sweep away flab. Your sidewalk or garage need a good sweeping? Grab a regular broom (not the push type) and go to it, advises Dr. Nagler. The back-and-forth motion is a great ab toner. And don't forget the dustpan: Bending over works your abs too, mostly when you exhale.
13. Discover Pilates. This series of stretching-type exercises done on the floor and on special equipment has been used by dancers for decades. But now New Yorker Margaret Klugman, 55, (and hundreds of others including many celebrities) attribute their tight abs to this low-impact form of exercise. For a list of studios and instructors near you, contact the United States Pilates Association at 888-484-8772. Or visit their website at www.pilates-studio.com.
If you experience back pain with any of these exercises, stop and check with your doctor before continuing.
1. Tilt your pelvis. Lie on the floor, arms at your sides and knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Next, press your lower back to the floor so that your pelvis tilts upward. Maintain this tilt as you straighten your legs by slowly sliding your heels along the floor. Stop when you can no longer hold a full tilt position. Hold and count aloud to six. Bring one leg, then the other, back to the starting position, maintaining the pelvic tilt throughout. Hold the starting position for six more counts. Relax. Repeat 12 times.
The next two exercises trimmed nearly 4 inches off the waistline of Poughkeepsie, NY, resident Marion Alexandra Licchiello, 43.
2. Lie on the floor with your legs straight up in the air. Place an exercise ball between your knees. Next, do a slight pelvic tilt (see above) from the hips. Squeeze for 1 second and relax. Start with 10 repetitions and work up to an amount where you feel fatigued.
3. Start in the same position as the previous exercise, with the ball between bent knees. Lift your hips off the floor so your knees move toward your chest. Squeeze for 1 second and then relax. Start with 10 repetitions and work up to an amount where you feel fatigued.
In addition to strength training, Angela Susi attributes her flat stomach to the following two moves.
4. Lie on the floor, face down, and support your upper body on your elbows, forearms, and hands. Slowly lift the rest of your body off the floor until you're on your toes. Keeping your body straight, hold for as long as is comfortable, then slowly lower and relax. Repeat as many times as possible until fatigued.
5. Lie on your left side, supporting your upper body on your left elbow, forearm, and hand. Your elbow should be directly under your shoulder. Slowly lift the rest of your body off the floor, so all that's touching is your forearm and feet. (Use the other arm to balance. For an advanced move, hold that arm straight up in the air.) Keep your body as straight as possible for maximum effect. Hold as long as is comfortable or until you can no longer maintain good form. Then slowly lower and relax. Repeat on the other side. Do as many times as possible until fatigued. [pagebreak]Here's a favorite from Virginia Markstein, 30, of Birmingham, AL, who also works on reducing her waistline by using an exercise ball.
6. Play catch. Get into a crunch position—lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, shoulders and head off the floor with your abs contracted. Then have someone throw an exercise ball (or basketball) to you—first to your left side so you have to twist and reach to catch it, and then to your right. Do as many times as is comfortable, and try to increase the number each week.
7. Work against gravity. Using an L-seat at the gym to do hanging leg lifts is one of the best exercises for your midsection. You're using the weight of your own legs against gravity. To do it: Support yourself on an L-seat with your forearms, legs hanging straight. Using your midsection muscles, slowly pull your knees up toward your chest and then lower. Keep your back against the seat, and don't swing your legs. For a more advanced move, keep your legs straight as you lift them.
8. Do it at home. Here's a variation of the previous exercise that doesn't require gym equipment: Sit up straight in a firm, armless chair. Place your hands on the sides of the chair in front of your hips. Tightening your abs and supporting yourself with your hands, slowly pull your knees up toward your chest. Keep your lower back against the chair back. Hold and then slowly lower.
4 Back Friendly Moves
For Nancy Moffett, 62, of Coopersburg, PA, back pain actually had a good side. When she started doing the exercises prescribed by a physical therapist to heal her back, as a bonus, her abs got firmer. Here's her workout:
1. Lie on the floor with an exercise ball (about 53 inches around) resting under your right heel. Bending your right knee, roll the ball as close to your buttocks as is comfortable while keeping your lower back on the floor. Hold 5 seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat for a total of 10 repetitions. Repeat on the left side.
2. Lie on the floor in the same position as above, with both heels resting on the ball. Bending both knees, roll the ball as close to your buttocks as is comfortable while keeping your lower back on the floor. Hold 5 seconds. Return to the starting position. Do 10 repetitions.
3. Kneeling on the floor, place your chest on an exercise ball and put your hands on the floor in front of it. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders. Slowly raise your right arm and left leg. Squeeze your buttocks as you lift, and aim to get your arm and leg in line with your spine. Don't lift your head or arch your back. Hold, and then slowly lower. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Do 10 times.
4. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place an exercise ball (66 inches around) on your abdomen and hold it with both hands. Use your hands to roll the ball to the top of your knees. Tuck your chin toward your chest and lift your head and shoulders off the floor. Lower to the starting position. Repeat. Exhale as you lift, and inhale as you lower the ball. Work up to 20 repetitions.