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Winning the Losing Game: Glimpsing the Gain

A four-part series on one woman’s four-month fitness challenge

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Physical trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07) walks BU Today reporter Vicky Waltz through a series of core exercises that specifically target the abdomen, thighs, and buttocks. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Last February, BU Today reporter Vicky Waltz set out to drop a few pounds and get in shape. After hiring a personal trainer through BU’s Fitness and Recreation Center, Waltz sweated through a semester of rigorous cardiovascular, core, and weight-training exercises.

This week we revisit four of Waltz’s eight articles. Monday she kicked off with an introduction to her fitness quest. Tuesday she focused on healthy dieting, Today she discusses the importance of having a strong core, and Thursday she writes about weight training.

Glimpsing the Gain

By Vicky Waltz

Since I started writing about my quest to shed 19 pounds, it seems that everyone is offering advice. By e-mail. On the phone. In person. Most of the time, the suggestions are practical. My physical trainer advised hitting the gym for at least an hour a day, five to six days a week, and my nutrition teacher proposed eating more fruits and vegetables.

Other suggestions are less helpful. Web sites and magazines advocate things from diet pills and herbal teas to triathlon training. While browsing a recent issue of Newsweek, I read about Rhonda Byrne, author of the best-selling book and DVD The Secret. Her weight-loss recommendation? Avoid looking at fat people. Based on what she calls “the law of attraction” — thoughts, good and bad, “attract” whatever they’re about — she writes, “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.”

 

I had always suspected it: my 18-pound cat is responsible for most of my weight gain. Off to the animal shelter he goes!

As might be expected, friends and family members support my endeavors wholeheartedly. One friend even mailed me a copy of You on a Diet: The Owner’s Manual to Waist Management, by a couple of doctors, Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz. The book’s short, easy-to-read chapters combine humor with sensible nutritional advice (plus an endorsement by Oprah) and have nudged it to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but I’ve skimmed most of the chapters, and much of it is in line with what I’m learning in my nutrition class. The authors’ philosophy does differ from standard dieting plans, however, in its emphasis on waist circumference over weight. “Because of its proximity to the organs, belly fat is the most dangerous fat you can carry,” they warn. “For optimum health, the ideal waist size for women is 321⁄2 inches, and for men, the ideal is 35 inches.”

Naturally, I grabbed a tape measure and wrapped it around my abdomen, directly across my naval. In high school, I had a 27-inch waist. Today, it measures 35 inches. Disgusted, I tossed the tape measure into a drawer. “Great,” I told my cat and accomplice. “Now I can worry about heart disease, too.”

Fat: the not-so-bad, the definitely bad, and the ugly

You on a Diet explains that our bodies store three types of fat: fat in our bloodstream, called triglycerides; subcutaneous fat, which lies directly beneath the skin’s surface; and omentum — the fatty layer of tissue located inside the belly that hangs underneath the stomach muscles. Omentum is the most dangerous type of fat because it squeezes all the vital organs, including the lungs, liver, kidneys, and intestines. As a result, people with extra belly fat are vulnerable to a frightening array of potential health complications, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and — according to some medical experts — certain types of cancer.

Women are more likely to carry the bulk of their excess weight in the thighs and the bottom, whereas overweight men tend to store fat in the stomach. This is why women are less likely to suffer heart attacks than men; fat on the thighs and bottom — while not a plus for bikini season — is not life-threatening.

I have an “apple-shaped” body, which is a nice way of saying that I have a gut. In fact, according to Roizen and Oz, if I gain just two more inches around my midsection, my health will be in jeopardy. On the other hand, if I lose those extra inches, the health risks will all but disappear.

Unfortunately, abdominal fat — particularly the kind beneath the belly button — is not only dangerous, it is stubborn. Diet alone does not get rid of it, and crunches do no good unless paired with cardiovascular exercise. Even cosmetic surgery will not eliminate health risks associated with belly fat. A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined 15 obese women before abdominal liposuction and then 10 to 12 weeks after surgery. Removal of large amounts of fat (about 20 percent of the patients’ total body mass) showed no changes in cholesterol, blood pressure, or insulin levels. To decrease omentum fat, I learned, it takes a combination of healthy food, portion control, and increased levels of activity. During my first session with FitRec physical trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07), we discussed my concerns about my stomach. “I hate it,” I said, jabbing the soft rolls of flesh for emphasis. “I look like I’m pregnant.”  

Stephanie prescribed a variety of core exercises that specifically target the abdomen, thighs, and buttocks. “Your core — the area around your trunk and pelvis — is where all body movement originates,” she explained. “It’s your center of gravity.”

When a person has good core stability, she continued, the muscles in the pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen work in harmony to support the spine. A weak core leads to poor posture, lower back pain, and muscle injuries.

It so happens that I had sprained my back — specifically my sacroiliac joint, the junction where the hip and pelvic bones meet the sacrum — in December. And it was the third time I’d injured myself in as many years. At first, I was frustrated and confused. Why was I, a physically active person, constantly hurting myself? Just as important, why was I gaining weight? After two years of walking and biking all over Boston and hiking in the White Mountains, shouldn’t my body be stronger? Shouldn’t it be ripped?     

The answer, I learned, was no. And the reason is that my core is weak.

As I thought about it, I realized that aside from sporadic bouts of crunches and a yoga class I took three years ago, I had never focused much on core strengthening. Before I met Stephanie, my regular visits to the gym involved only cardiovascular activities, such as running, biking, and using the elliptical machine. Resistance training intimidated me, and core exercises — such as sit-ups, squats, and lunges — were far too boring. I was also under the impression that cardio workouts were the most effective way to blast fat. While I wasn’t completely wrong — cardiovascular exercises do burn the most calories — the most successful fitness programs incorporate three types of activities: cardio, resistance, and core.

Doing the work

Today, my typical gym session consists of 30 minutes of cardio, generally on the elliptical machine, followed by 200 crunches, 30 squats and split lunges, and 90 side bends, holding 10-pound dumbbells. After that, I focus on resistance training.

On days that I target my arms, I do three sets of bicep curls with a 20-pound barbell, three sets of triceps curls with an 8-pound dumbbell, three sets of bench presses with a 30-pound barbell (or a 40-pounder, if Stephanie is there to spot me), and three sets of rows with a 20-pound barbell. Each set consists of 15 repetitions.

On days that I target my legs, I use the leg press, leg extension, leg curl, and hip abductor and adductor machines. Weight varies between 40 and 95 pounds, and I try to do three sets of 15 repetitions. Curiously, even though my legs are stronger than my arms, I find the arm exercises easier.

If I’m not pressed for time, I do 200 more crunches and some stability ball exercises, followed by 30 more minutes of cardio, generally on the recumbent bike. (I tried running two weeks ago, and succeeded only in reinjuring my back.) I finish off with 10 minutes of stretching. 

At this point, I am less than two months into my new workout routine, and already I notice a difference. I’m not losing weight as fast as I’d like to, but my arms and legs are much stronger. In fact, since I started bench-pressing, I’ve graduated from the 20-pound barbell to the 40-pound one. Stephanie says she is beginning to see some definition in my quads from all the squats and lunges, and my levels of endurance have increased dramatically. Sometimes I spend as many as two hours at the gym, and although I’m tired when I finish, I’m not exhausted.

I’m coming around to believing that the most important thing I’m doing is strengthening my abdominal muscles. I’m not even close to having six-pack abs, but thanks to physical therapy — which primarily targets the abdominal area — and regular intervals of crunches on the leverage crunch machine, I’m finding it easier to suck in my stomach, even when sitting. This improves my posture, which in turn helps heal my back. Stephanie’s advice about the importance of core muscles appears to be right on the money.

I’ve also discovered the power of the stability ball, one of the hardest exercises Stephanie has recommended. It involves lying on my back and gripping the enormous ball between my calves. I lift my legs and torso, pass the ball from my ankles to my hands, and drop my legs while simultaneously lowering the ball over my head and to the floor. It’s excruciating, but since starting, I’ve increased my repetitions from 10 to 20.    

All in all, I won’t be wearing a bikini this summer, but it’s not impossible that next year at this time I’ll be leafing through Title Nine catalogues, looking for something in the latest colors. In the meantime, I plan to concentrate on short-term goals: spending one to two hours at the gym at least four times a week, walking a minimum of 30 minutes a day, eating healthily, and healing. I’m told that I look better than when I started this quest, and I know that I feel better. I’m not about to stop now.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This article appeared on BU Today on March 19, 2007.