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The Myth of 6-Pack Abs

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The storied six-pack—a lean, muscular, and well-defined midsection—is a ubiquitous goal for people who want to get in shape; people like how it looks, all the fittest celebrities have one, and it's an easy shorthand for describing a particular level of fitness that's considered an aesthetic ideal.

Louis Sepulveda, a Tier 3 personal trainer at Equinox fitness club in Darien, Connecticut, can testify as much. "Almost every client I have, during their fitness assessment, would mention wanting a six-pack—or at least having a flatter tummy," he says. But getting that kind of definition isn't a simple matter of going from fat to fit.

"Everyone, for the most part, is born with the same muscles that make up the ab complex," Sepulveda explains. "But you need to lose body fat in order for definition to show. For someone who carries more visceral fat—fat stored within the abdominal cavity—having a six-pack can be laborious."

In other words, thousands of get-ups, planks, or bicycle curls might give you abs of steel, but if you want them to pop out like Brad Pitt's in Fight Club, you'll have to eat at a deficit (a diet low in calories and high in protein) until your body has burned enough fat to reveal them. And despite all those internet ads touting "one weird trick to blast belly fat," alas, says our trainer, there's no such thing as spot-reducing: "You can't target a specific area to burn fat."

And because fat tends to come off in reverse order (the first place you store it is the last place you'll lose it), if you're unlucky enough to store extra fat in your belly, you may not be able to achieve that kind of definition without also dropping to a dangerously low level of body fat, something Sepulveda cautions strongly against.

"Having visible abs becomes unrealistic when you're striving to go below a normal level of body fat," he says. "As much as everyone hates fat, you need it to live. It's a source of energy, it supports brain and nerve function. Having very low levels of body fat can become unhealthy."

In men, extremely low levels of body fat are associated with risks including dangerously low heart rates, a decline in testosterone levels, and poor recovery. For women, too little body fat can result in amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycles), which in turn is a major risk factor for developing osteoporosis.

And much as we may appreciate the way it looks, the truth is that six-pack abs are actually pretty useless as a measure of fitness. A six-pack indicates absolutely nothing about your speed, your strength, your stamina, your flexibility, or even your level of overall health. All it means is that you have a lean enough midsection for your musculature to show—which is why Sepulveda encourages his clients to focus on goals beyond the coveted six-pack.

"I have my clients strengthen their trunk stability, working all the muscles located in the torso. Adding plank variations, rotations, chops, and lifts to your workout routine will make your abs, obliques, and lower back a lot stronger, not to mention less prone to injury," he says.

So if it turns out that a visible six-pack is out of reach for you (or if you're not interested in adopting the kind of restrictive diet it takes to get and maintain one) there are still plenty of good reasons to work that core. Having strong abs will serve you well, both in and out of the gym—and that's true regardless of whether you ever get lean enough to see them.

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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