The menu of benefits that comes with a workout is delectable: a boost in mental health, increase in energy and focus, improved sleep and sex…I could go on. But for many people, the #sixpack remains the pinnacle of fitness goals—and it has a hashtag with over 10 million posts to prove it. But what do visible abs actually say about someone’s health or fitness level?
Not a whole lot, says Jessica Ash, a functional clinical nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She points out that the pursuit of a six pack can be a healthy one for some; but for other body types, it can signify that their diets are too restrictive, workouts that are too aggressive, or that their overall expectations are unrealistic. “I’m not demonizing having abs at all, but it’s important to know the facts and that everyone’s a little bit different,” says Ash. So, suffice it to say that picture-of-health that six pack abs have come to represent is pretty much the biggest scam of our generation (next to needing 10,000 steps a day, that is).
That’s because healthy recommendations for body fat in women tend to fall between 20 to 25 percent, while engineering a visible six pack requires dropping those body fat percentages down to somewhere between 16 to 19 percent (or lower), according to many trainers. Ash says that six-percent drop can bring on some unwanted side effects in women, including hormonal imbalances, which can cause amenorrhea (missed periods). “This is what you should think about before you work your butt off to try to attain that maybe unrealistic goal,” she advises.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with wanting to have a strong core. (A strong core is good! Every movement comes from the center of our bodies!) But in the pursuit of six-pack abs, certain falsehoods just won’t quit. Until now.
3 falsehoods about the six pack we need to nip right now
1. All belly fat is “bad.”
It’s not. Plain and simple. A little bit of fat around the mid section serves some pretty important purposes, like you know, protecting your vital organs. “Women tend to store a little more fat around our reproductive organs—on our hips, our thighs, and our waist—because it’s our body’s natural defense mechanism to protect our most important organs,” explains Ash. And that’s on top of the work it does (along with other fat in the body) to help with the hormone production necessary for everyday living.
2. You’re not really in shape unless you have a six-pack.
OMG, this one! Drop it! A super common misconception is that visible washboard abs are the picture of health. It’s completely false. “I put an emphasis on ‘visible abs,’ because everybody has abdominal muscles, it’s just a matter of whether your body fat percentage is low enough to make them visible,” says Ash. “You can be strong and healthy and still have a layer of fat covering your six pack.”
3. The six pack is the gold standard for health.
It’s easy to look at someone with ripped muscles and defined abs and assume that they must be super healthy. But outward appearances only tell part of the story. Restricting calories and amping up abs exercises to achieve the low body fat percentage to show off the six pack can result in a laundry list of problems, according to Ash, including those aforementioned hormonal imbalances that cause skipped-periods, hypothyroidism, severe anxiety, and severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
So, where does all this leave us? A strong core is a solid goal, but according to Ash, maintaining and improving your strength is a worthier motivation for that sweat sesh than achieving a certain aesthetic. That means, if you can hold a plank for 30 seconds today, maybe you aim to hold it for a minute tomorrow; if you can do two sets of 15 leg lifts today, aim for 3 in a month. Now that deserves a gold star.
Speaking of things that are long-held falsities: Apparently walking 10K steps a day isn’t at all necessary but if you’re dead set on trying, here are some, uh, creative ways to make that happen.
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