For most people, abs are the fitness holy grail. But there is so much more you can get out of your exercise regime than a rock-hard six pack, says Denise Li.
I speak from experience: Abs are overrated.
I had abs three weeks ago, in the week of my boxing competition. More specificially, I had them for, like, three days. It was a result of training at least an hour a day 5 – 6 times a week, doing a mix of boxing and strength and conditioning training for two months straight.
But mostly, those precious lines that everyone seems to be covet that finally appeared in my mid-section were a result of very clean eating: In the month before my competition, I only allowed myself carbs once a day. But I chose them wisely. I stayed away from anything white. Refined carbs digest quickly, causing surges and drops in your blood sugar level, so you’ll feel hungrier more quickly. I cut out all known sources of sugar. Dinner was usually a salad with chicken breast, topped with a low-fat dressing. Snacks were either baked almonds or protein shakes. In the week of my competition, I didn’t have carbs at all because I had to lose a few kilos to get to my fighting weight.
After a sustained period of that punishing regime, this was the result. I took this pic on the day of my weigh-in:
Please excuse me just this once; I know I’ve written critically about fitspo, and I think if there’s one thing worse than selfies, it’s body/fitness selfies. But I took that photo (and yes, I posted on my public Instagram account too) because I knew that the abs sighting was going to be a rare occurrence: The regime I put myself through was way too punishing to sustain over the long term and I had no intention of continuing with it after the competition. Yeah I was on the road to having a proper six-pack, but I was also stressed, tired, and worst of all, I had no social life, because I hated being that person who always had to say, “Sorry, I can’t eat sugar/carbs” and turning down offers of lychee martinis.
Today, three weeks on, I have completely lost my abs. In those three weeks, I clocked just two (half-hearted) workouts. I pigged out on pizza, zhi char, gin & tonics, and beer. Alright. Technically, my abs are still there, but they are hidden under the layer of fat that I call my “happy belly”.
And you know what? I don’t miss my abs at all.
Now that I’ve fully indulged myself after two months of deprivation, I am looking forward to going back to a more moderate lifestyle. I can’t wait to go back to my almost-daily workouts. I’m only going to allow myself drinks every fortnight, and I’ll go back to eating salads every other day.
But one thing I will not do is hanker after abs. And I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t either. And you definitely shouldn’t beat yourself up or consider yourself a fitness failure just because you don’t have abs.
Now, I don’t think it’s wrong to work out because you want to look good. Ask anyone who works out: I bet vanity would be one of the reasons they do it for 99% of people out there, and anyone who says otherwise is a big fat liar. But to exercise excessively (at the expense of your social life) and to continually deprive yourself of sweet treats just so you can have a Jessica Biel-worthy mid-section is a long and lonely road that I don’t think anyone should embark on.
What I would advocate instead is developing a healthy attitude towards exercise with the following tips:
1. Aim for results on more visible parts of the body
I’m guessing that you probably don’t have a selection of cropped tops that you wear on rotation anyway, so why not work on toning up the parts of the body that are more regularly exposed to the world, like your arms, legs, and shoulders? These can be easily achieved with body-weight exercises that don’t require the use of a gym or equipment. For starters, try The Seven-Minute Workout, which you can easily do in the comfort of home. There are loads of free apps on the Apple App Store and Google Play store you can download to bring you through the routine.
2. Remember: The numbers on the weighing scale don’t necessarily mean anything
A couple of women I spoke to recently complained about how they actually put on weight and bulked up a little when they started working out intensively. I know how alarming this can be because I remember not being able to fit into my favourite party dress two months after picking up muay thai five years ago. The reason this happens is because your body builds muscle faster than it loses fat. Muscle also weighs more than fat, so when you first start working out, you might see the numbers on the scale go up first. Don’t panic, and don’t lose heart when this happens. Remember: When you build more lean muscle, your body burns more calories. Keep at your workouts; I guarantee that this “bulking up” is only temporary and you will start shedding weight by losing fat after awhile.
Nonetheless, I know how tempting it is to use numbers as a gauge of a your progress, and if you must, focus on other measurements other than your weight and BMI. Things such as body fat percentage, muscle mass, amount of visceral fat (the fat surrounding your organs), and metabolic age matter more than how much you weigh. If you are a member of a chain gym, one of the trainers there should be able to help you take these measurements using one of their specialised machines.
3. Take note of how the workouts make you feel, mentally and emotionally
Most people tend to only pay attention to their physical progress when they start working out. They want to be able to lose weight, lift heavier weights, etc … but don’t get caught up in the numbers game. When I exercise and (try my best to) eat clean, I find that I have a lot more energy, and I am mentally a lot sharper. I am able to concentrate for longer periods of time when I am at work, and the lack of sleep is less debilitating.
What are some of the non-vanity benefits you reap from exercise? I’d love to hear from you.
About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.
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