It’s rumored that Scarlet O’Hara had a 17-inch waistline. Of course, she had a little help. This legendary Southern gal gritted her teeth as Mammy strapped her waist into a corset and tightened it around her midline like a vice. Ouch! Most of us would like a tiny waistline but not at the expense of wearing a corset!
Thankfully, corsets are no longer in style, although Kim Kardashian supposedly wears a waist training corset to define her waistline. Most women would like to whittle their waist size but without the discomfort of artificially cinching it in. There’s certainly no shortage of exercises that claim to firm your waistline. Just grab a mat or a dumbbell and twist and bend your way to a smaller waistline. From side planks to side bends – how effective are waist exercises?
Slimming Your Waist Through Exercise
Waist exercises, including popular exercises like side bends holding a dumbbell, sound good in theory but because you can’t spot reduce fat, they alone won’t reduce the size of your waist. In fact, if you hold a heavy dumbbell while doing exercises like side bends, you may actually INCREASE the size of your waistline by hypertrophying your oblique muscles, the muscles that define your waist.
Factors that Influence Waist Size
Does this mean you’re stuck with the waistline you have? Not necessarily. Let’s look at what determines waist size and what you can do to make your waistline look more tapered.
As you might expect, genetics is one factor that influences waist size. Some people are naturally apple-shaped, meaning they’re predisposed to depositing fat around their upper body and waist. But, as you’ll soon see, diet and age are other factors that influence whether you preferentially store fat around your waistline. Also, the overall shape of the rest of your body can make your waistline look larger or smaller. If you have narrow shoulders or narrow hips, your waistline will look larger by contrast.
Being of low body weight is no guarantee that your waistline is small, but if you’re overweight and lose weight, your waist measurement will most likely shrink to some degree. How much fat you drop in the waist area is influenced by your genetics but physical activity also plays a pivotal role in keeping your waistline trim.
What kind of exercise? There’s some evidence that high-intensity exercise a.k.a. HIIT training is more effective than moderate-intensity exercise for shredding abdominal fat and waist circumference. A combination of high-intensity exercise and a diet that promotes weight loss is a more effective approach for trimming your waistline than focused waistline exercises like side bends.
Age and Hormonal Status
Many women notice an increase in waist size after menopause. When your ovaries stop producing estrogen, you store less fat around your hips, thighs, and buttocks and more around the tummy and waistline. This change happens partially because you have more estrogen receptors in your hips and thighs and estrogen to occupy them prior to menopause.
When you’re producing lots of estrogen, more of it naturally ends up on your lower body because of the abundance of estrogen receptors. Things change after menopause when estrogen production by the ovaries grinds to a halt. Imaging studies show women carry more intra-abdominal and trunk fat after menopause, independent of total body weight.
Diet and Activity Level
A diet high in sugar and processed foods, especially if you’re overweight, reduces insulin sensitivity, how readily your cells respond to the insulin your pancreas produces. As insulin sensitivity drops, more insulin enters your bloodstream, creating an environment that promotes fat storage, especially deep abdominal visceral fat. This shows up as a muffin top, spare tire around the waist, or an expanding waistline. What can you do about it? Eat a clean, unprocessed diet, reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, and do high-intensity exercise. These all improve insulin sensitivity and help vanquish that annoying muffin top.
The Role Weight Training Plays in Keeping Your Waistline Trim
You might not want to focus most of your energy on waistline exercises, but high-intensity weight training can help trim your waistline. Compound exercises that work multiple, large muscle groups at once, like squats and deadlifts, burns calories and gives you a post-workout after-burn that promotes continued fat burning, even after a training session is over.
Through weight training, you can also increase the size of your shoulders. Broader shoulders give the illusion of a smaller waist size. Weight training, in general, improves your body composition.
Why Waist Size is Important
Waist size is more than an aesthetic issue, it’s also a marker for health and disease risk. Carrying a “spare tire” around the waist means you have more deep belly fat, called visceral fat. This unhealthy form of fat is linked with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and higher mortality.
Women who have a waist size larger than 35 inches are at greatest risk for health problems. In fact, a study showed women who have a waist size greater than 35 inches have triple the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Men have a 5 times greater risk when their waist size increases beyond 37 inches.
In general, your waist size, for optimal health, should be no larger than half of your height. If you’re 5 feet, 6 inches (66 inches), your waist circumference should be no bigger than 33 inches. Health experts now believe waist size is a better predictor of disease risk than body mass index or BMI.
The Bottom Line
Waist exercises, like side bends, aren’t the best approach to shrinking your waistline. You’ll benefit more from doing high-intensity interval training, high-intensity weight training, and eating a clean, unprocessed diet. Even if you don’t see your waistline shrink significantly, you’ll be rewarded with better body composition.
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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Waist Size Matters”
Diabetes Digest. “Large waist size increases diabetes risk up to 5 times”
BMC Endocrine DisordersBMC series – open, inclusive and trusted20099:1 dOI: 10.1186/1472-6823-9-1
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