Henry was in his last year of nursery school when I climbed into a cab on my way to the gym.
“This is a miracle!” said the cabdriver as I fastened my seatbelt. He looked at me from the rearview mirror. “I’m retiring today, and every single one of my passengers has been a pregnant woman!”
He went on to list the five pregnant women who had been his passengers since early that morning, ending with me.
I didn’t want to burst his bubble, so I wished him the best in his retirement and disembarked at my local big box fitness emporium, determined to work off the post-baby belly that had plagued me for years.
When I stopped at the juice bar after my workout for a smoothie, the young woman behind the counter congratulated me.
“Thanks!” I replied, thinking I had won a free smoothie.
“When are you due?” she persisted.
“Four years ago,” I mumbled.
I tried to accept that as a mother, I had a different body. I tried to see my tummy as cute. Look at babies. Look at pandas. They have tummies and they’re so cute. But put a panda in a bathing suit? Exactly. And although “tummy” rhymes with “yummy,” in the end, it’s really just another word for excess abdominal fat, the visceral fat that surrounds your organs and is a predictor of heart disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers.
Not cute at all.
I had been doing a lot of running. I think running is great and has amazing physical and psychological benefits when you do it properly and cross-train. But that’s not how I had been doing it. Hamsters have a brain the size of a grape, and yet I was training like one, putting in about 8 miles a day, usually on a human Habitrail that went round and round while I watched the E! Channel. I lost weight, but eventually I gave myself bursitis in both my heels, ending both my running career and my relationship with the Kardashians. And while the rest of me shrank, my belly looked even more prominent.
So I started really focusing on the belly in my workouts. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. My post-baby bump remained.
Why? Because I was exercising my core as if its primary job was crunching. And guess what: Once you’re born, you really don’t need to be good at the fetal position anymore.
In fact, the core is a marvelous, complex series of muscles that go far beyond the rectus abdominis (the six pack) to almost everything except the arms and legs, including the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, and the diaphragm. Many of the core muscles are hidden beneath the muscles we all typically train.
Most often, our core acts as an isometric or dynamic stabilizer for movement or transfers force from your lower extremities to your upper extremities. Have you ever heard a kick-boxing instructor say that a kick comes from the core, not the legs? The power behind a punch comes from the core too. Think about a golf swing. It originates from the ground up. So does a baseball swing.
Core strength is the ability to produce force and control the force we’re creating. No matter how strong we are, or how far we can run, without core strength we’re prone to injury and ineffective and inefficient in our movements. We’re also failing to protect our spines.
If you’re like me, you might also keep that early-second-trimester-look into your child’s first day of kindergarten.
Exercise physiologists agree that the hard and fast crunches we see so often in the gym are not effective. Slow, controlled movements work better, especially when we incorporate other muscles, like the shoulders and glutes. Great moves for the core include planks and crawls, twists and side balances. To work the smaller, hidden muscles, we need more subtle moves, like pulling the navel toward the spine and engaging the pelvic floor. Lunges and squats are fantastic core stabilizing exercises.
It wasn’t until I started to work the entire core that I started to see real changes in my post-baby, forty-something body. And it’s been months since a stranger offered me his seat on the subway. I see that as a very good sign.
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