The Midlife Workout That Really Matters

Six-pack abs? Just a distraction. To stand tall and strong for the rest of your life, exercise these muscles with this workout.

By Elena Rover
core exercise medicine ball picture

The Midriff Crisis

Are you suffering from a midriff crisis?

Odds are, the answer is yes. In terms of fitness, being over 40 puts you right into the belly of the beast. In fact, "After you turn 40, the belly is the beast," says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, author of Body for Life for Women and chief medical correspondent of Discovery Health TV. "You can do a million Pilates hundreds exercises and the belly is going nowhere."

Unfortunately, that extra padding means more than an annoying change in jeans size — it’s bad for your health. Too much abdominal fat puts you at risk for heart disease and diabetes. And there’s a more subtle danger: A less-than-firm tummy is often accompanied by a weak core.

Your core consists of the muscles in your abdomen, back, and hips, which form a kind of corset that holds you up and allows the upper and lower body to work well together. When this area is unstable, you have trouble lifting heavy bags or walking far or sitting comfortably for long periods of time. Wimpy muscles put you at risk for back pain, sports injuries, and falls. For midlife women preparing for the next several decades, Peeke says, "Your mission statement is to stay vertical. To do so, you need to develop a strong and flexible core."

If you’re skeptical, try this, suggests Peeke: "Let your abs hang loose, then bend down to pick something up. Now try the same thing holding your abs firm. Feel the difference in support? Imagine how good it would feel if your abs were that firm all day long. That’s what will happen when you develop a strong core."

But many over-40 women still exercise the way they learned to in middle school: with endless crunches. While these have their place, they work only one kind of abdominal muscle: the rectus abdominis, the one responsible for six-pack abs. Health experts like Peeke recommend stretching and strengthening additional muscles in the abdomen and back, including the deep transverses abdominis below your belt and the obliques on the sides of your body.

To do that most effectively, experts say you should work out in a way that moves the entire body at once. That’s the goal of the exercises shown here, which were developed by Bedford, New York, trainer Ralf Hennig, who works with busy women like Hillary Clinton. "These exercises not only strengthen the big muscle groups but the important joint stabilizers that are essential to preventing injuries," he says.

Once you start exercising your core, you’ll notice a domino effect, says Peeke: "By stretching and contracting the muscles of the abs and back, you become more aware of that area. The awareness carries over into everyday life. For instance, when you watch TV, you’ll sit up taller and roll your shoulders back, pulling in the belly a bit more, which improves toning in your core."

Just don’t expect a core workout to make a huge dent in your waistline. "Your flab is from overeating. Even if you never had the problem before, you were never this age before. Now is the time to put yourself on a calorie budget. Most women who have flab should be eating only 1,400 to 1,600 calories a day, depending on their size," Peeke says. You also need to ramp up your activity level.

The good news, notes Peeke, is that a firm core "will make other activities safer. Then, when you walk, hike, garden, or do yoga, that in turn will help strengthen your core even more. It’s a win-win scenario."

The Reinventing-Your-Core Workout: Twist & Sweep

These exercises firm and flex your core muscles while you move in different directions. They were designed by trainer Ralf Hennig, author of Four Way Burn. We used his four-pound ball ($35, plus shipping and handling; performanceball.com), but you can substitute a light medicine ball (maximum four pounds). Do the reps for each of the three moves once, then repeat the series until you’ve exercised for 15 to 20 minutes. Work slowly as you learn the moves; then pick up the pace so you’re breathing hard. Repeat the workouts two to five times a week and you’ll see significant results in toning, trimming and flexibility within four weeks.

First, the Twist & Sweep:

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