It's easy to become fixated on the size of your belly and width of your waist. Diet, stress, sedentary behaviors and postural issues common in the desk-sitting, digital age can all lead to an increased waist size—and this area can be the source of much body shame.
Most people head straight for stomach crunches in the gym when they feel disgruntled about belly size, and the full range of motion that's needed around the middle can be forgotten under the ambition of simply strengthening and flattening the front body.
Acknowledging the need to focus on breathing, releasing tension, spinal motion and movement in all directions—and learning how to do this with the right exercises—can help you foster a happy relationship with your middle.
And don't forget the importance of good sleep hygiene and stress management. Both can help to keep the weight off and your tummy trim.
Supporting good sleep
Doing low-intensity exercise in the early evening can help promote good sleep quality, particularly if you also stay away from screens, which can interfere with production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Overnight, melatonin affects the storage of fat by increasing brown adipose (fat) tissue, the 'good fat' that uses up energy rather than storing it. This also reduces the accumulation of 'bad' white fat in the abdominal region—the whole effect happens through a process called thermogenesis, where the body burns calories to produce heat.
Indeed, a recent study found that the better your sleep quality, the greater the success of lifestyle interventions to combat fat storage.1
During the day, more intense exercise (and lower sugar intake) can increase thermogenesis, but at night it can interfere with the process by reducing melatonin production. Low-intensity exercise, on the other hand, has been shown not to interfere with the melatonin rise that prepares you for bed.2
The stress connection
Quality sleep also helps support weight-loss efforts by discharging stress hormones built up during the day. One of these in particular, cortisol, has been shown to increase fat storage around the waist.
Exercise is also crucial for reducing stress hormones,3 and it doesn't need to be frenzied and intense to have an effect. Paying mindful attention to your breathing and the quality of your movement can have a far-reaching impact in terms of stress.
Long-term stress tends to clamp up the diaphragm and restrict breathing up into the chest and shoulders, where the out-breath also becomes shortened. Diaphragmatic breathing (where you feel the movement into the belly) has been shown to trigger body relaxation responses and allow slower, deeper breathing that can lower cortisol levels while exercising.4
Deep breathing stops your body from registering the movements as a stressful event and helps regulate the metabolic processes that aid weight loss. Mindful movement also helps to foster body awareness via the vagus nerve, which contributes to regulating stress-induced appetite and sugar cravings that can increase fat storage around the waist.5
Beyond the core
When it comes to exercises that target the belly and waist, there is a lot of talk of strengthening the core muscles, which are specifically:
Rectus abdominis, the 'six-pack' muscle close to the surface of the abdomen. It works to draw the spine forward and to the left and right, so we engage it when drawing in, such as when doing crunches and side-bending.
Internal and external oblique muscles, the diagonal muscles that rotate and stabilize the torso, which are like a corset around your sides between the ribs and pelvis. These engage when we rotate and lengthen the side of the body.
Transverse abdominis, the deep core muscle beneath the others, between the front ribs and pelvis. It stabilizes your trunk during isometric contractions such as the plank, where it is strengthened without changing length.
Open and lengthen
With modern postural habits of hunching over desks and phones, it's crucial that any exercise doesn't simply add to this 'curl-in' tendency by over-contracting the the core muscles of the front body and ignoring the back body.
Opening the belly to lengthen the abdominals and contract the back muscles is as important to the overall health—and appearance—of the waist area and how it supports the body above when you stand.
On the following pages you'll find a combination of floor, mid-plane and standing sequences to help you explore the full range of motion around the mid-body.
Moving in all directions around the waist (and spine) keeps this area supple, free-moving and responsive to metabolic and fat-storing changes.
Feel free to practice one sequence at a time or do all three in order, but always take time to fully rest afterward.
Lying with knees bent, breathe into the belly for a while and then arch your back on the inhalation. Exhale to let the belly and chest drop, waist back down to the ground.
Follow these motions just behind the natural rhythm of your breath, freeing motion in the spine and letting the head move as feels right.
Interlink your hands behind your head and on an exhalation, curl up into your belly, lifting the head with the hands and supporting the neck by drawing the elbows in toward each other.
Inhale to open the elbows out to the floor and arch the back to lift the waist and upper back off the floor.
Move between these motions, and after 10 to 20 cycles, with the exhale take one elbow toward the opposite hip, inhaling back out to center.
Then, alternate side to side before ending by holding the back arch for a few breaths to release the belly.
Draw your knees into your chest and breathe there to release your lower back.
With knees together, circle them to create a massaging effect on the lower back, first in one direction and then the other.
With your knees pulled into the chest and shoulders on the ground, move your knees side to side into a gentle twist, which can range from smaller to larger and back again to feel all the muscles and fascia around the waist.
Cycle the legs as if you are pedaling a bicycle, with a forward motion and then a backward one, playing with extending the legs as you would push down on a pedal.
Draw your lower ribs to the ground as you move to support the lower back.
On an exhalation, draw your knees into your chest.
Inhale to extend one leg out above its own hip, the other extended to hover above the ground.
Exhale and draw both legs back in to lengthen the lower back and soften the belly.
Follow side to side, and if your legs don't easily extend, prioritize lengthening the top one and bend the one that's closer to the ground.
Cross your left leg over your right thigh and on an out-breath, let your legs drop to the left to twist.
Inhale the legs back to center and follow this motion to the left, anchoring with the right shoulder and arm heavy to the ground, and turning the head to the right as you twist if it feels fine in your neck.
Rest in the center and repeat on the other side to feel deep into the side body.
Lie with limbs fully extended to rest after your floor sequence.
From all fours, lift your knees and hips into downward-facing dog, raising your heels as high as you need to lift your tailbone and open across the belly and chest to where you feel your waist lengthening.
Drop your knees into a half-plank position (on the elbows if this is too much weight for your wrists).
Lift one knee at a time to come into a full plank, then repeat starting with the opposite leg. Keep lifting your breastbone up to the ceiling to where you feel your abdominals engage, rather than hanging down from your shoulders.
You can also come into plank pose directly from downward-facing dog and move back and forward between the two. Plank is a standard exercise for developing core strength and primarily works the deep transverse abdominis.
Twenty seconds is said to be an optimum holding time for either plank pose by many personal trainers, but build up slowly so you can still feel your diaphragm moving as you breathe.
Holding beyond your comfortable range will both increase stress hormones that promote fat storage around the waist and create tension in the back muscles that will compensate if the abdominals are weak.
It is better to build up your postural abdominal strength bit by bit with an intelligent emphasis on listening to your body.
Ease out through downward-facing dog and come to a side plank, starting with leg down and supporting yourself on the lower forearm to feel the technique. Side planks engage the obliques and stabilize the spine.
After holding each side lifting the bottom hip and breathing fully, come back through downward-facing dog and to the full version of the plank if you have built up to it. This can involve coming onto the lower wrist or staying on the forearm as your wrists need. Also, the top foot can be placed behind the bottom one for more stability to lift the lower hip.
Step the right foot forward to come into a low lunge, lifting the arms as wide as necessary in order for you to be able to lift up from the lower belly and soften the shoulders.
Take the left arm to the outside of the right knee to turn the belly to the right into a twist on the inhale, and let it retract back with the exhale.Come to the other side via downward-facing dog.
Step the right foot forward again and keep the back knee up (or lower if you need), placing the left hand under the left shoulder and lifting the right arm up to come into a twist.
Turn from the belly and keep the top hand on the hip if you need. Come to the other side via downward-facing dog.
From standing with feet hip-width apart and soft knees, swing your arms around your body to feel movement at the waist.
Take your hands in front of your chest as if holding an invisible football. Inhale to take one arm out behind you past the hip, and exhale back the same route.
Inhale the other arm back, and take the motion side to side.
Take the same imaginary ball in big circles, bending your knees to drop down past your shins within your comfortable range. Switch direction, keeping your eyes on the moving ball.
Lift your arms, taking hold of one wrist to side-bend in that direction and then swap over.
Step one foot to the side, lifting the other and balancing to the side, keeping your gaze to the floor for steadiness.
Revolve the chest and belly to the ceiling, flexing the back foot to support this movement. Come to the other side.
Finish by standing with hands in front of your belly, taking a moment to appreciate this area, where so much nourishment and support occur.