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.
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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 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." 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.
Illustration by: Jason Lee

The Twist & Sweep

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold the ball in both hands, arms extended at shoulder height in front of you (a). Lift your right foot a few inches on the floor, keeping your foot flexed. Then twist your upper body to the right as far as you can, holding the ball at shoulder height and sweeping your right foot to the left (b). Keep your hips stable, controlling the movement with your abs and lower back. Return to start position. Complete the repetitions on one side, then switch sides and repeat. Begin with 10 reps on each side; build to 20. What it strengthens: Neck and shoulders, arms, upper back, lower back, hips, thighs, and abdomen. Improves posture, balance, and coordination, and reduces stiffness in the lower back and hips.
Illustration by: Jason Lee

Lean & Crunch

Stand with your feet parallel, hip-width apart. Hold the ball in your left hand with your arm at your side, your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle (a). Slowly extend the ball up and out to the left as far as you can, leaning your torso to the left and lifting your right leg out to the right, foot flexed, to counterbalance (b). Next, bend your right knee, bringing it up to the left while also lowering your left elbow so they meet in front of your abdomen©. Return to the start. Complete the reps on one side, then switch sides and repeat. Begin with 10 reps and build up to 20. What it strengthens: Neck and shoulders, arms, upper back, lower back, hips, thighs, and abdomen. Improves posture, balance, and coordination, and reduces stiffness in the lower back and hips.
Illustration by: Jason Lee

Squat & Toss

Stand with your feet wide apart, in a generous straddle, toes pointed out slightly. Hold the ball in both hands, arms extended at shoulder height in front of you (a). Squat down, pushing the ball between your legs as far back as you can, chin tucked and back rounded (b). Rise, lifting your gaze and flattening your back, pressing into your feet as you lift your arms and straighten your body past the starting position, throwing the ball overhead©. Catch the ball and return to the starting position. Start with 10 repetitions, building to 20. What it firms: Abs, back, butt, shoulders, and thighs. Stretches and strengthens the lower back, improves stability, and increases your reach.
Illustration by: Jason Lee

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