I chanced on this important study in the men’s health article in the Times of India (2018) and I would like to share it with you. We cannot be wiser than God, indeed. Well, today, the craze for body enhancement in both males and females has dominated the airwaves. But we don’t also look at the negative aspect of these body enhancements. We look at the interlocutory benefits.
Studies from researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Harvard University investigated the link between male body image issues and mental health.
A researcher interviewed 2,460 men aged 18-32 about their gym habits, and about 10 percent of them have ‘body-image disorder’. They found that body-obsessed men have a higher risk of not only depression, but also weekend binge drinking, and using illegal supplements, including anabolic steroids. With this disorder, they will feel guilty when missing out on one workout even while they are in excellent shape; they will still feel the need to be thinner.
Apart from that, six-pack abs interfere with your breathing. Your breathing consists of your lungs, diaphragm and accessory respiratory muscles. The ‘Rectus Abdominis Muscle’, what we know as the six-pack, is directly connected to the lower part of your ribcage. When your abs are in a contracted state, it will further pull your ribcage down and restrict the free gliding movement of the lungs and interfere with your breathing.
The term ‘six-pack’ typically refers to the rectus abdominis muscle. Flynn and Vickerton explained that the rectus abdominis muscle runs from the sternum to the pubic bone and is responsible for dynamically flexing the spine forward. Some studies have shown, though, that this muscle is not necessarily effective as a stabiliser of the spine (Kim and Lee 2017; Stokes et al. 2011).
Tyler Read (2021) explained in his article that the moniker ‘six-pack’ comes from its appearance of visible rows of 4–8 distinct muscular segments that you can see on individuals with relatively low body fat. Although many additional important muscles comprise your core, the rectus abdominis is the most superficial one. As such, it’s the muscle that gives chiseled abs their distinct appearance. Likewise, because it’s the outermost layer of ab muscle, it does not do much in terms of stability of the spinal column.
Visibility of 6-Pack
The major issue that has to do with six-pack visibility is the amount of subcutaneous body fat store around the stomach. We have been advised that the fact that one does not have visible six-pack abdominals doesn’t mean our core is weak, or even that you are carrying excess weight. Traditionally, visible six-pack abs need a body fat percentage far lower than that required for general health benefits.
One study (Branco et al. 2018) recommended that a normal range for body fat percentage is 17.6–25.3 percent in males and 28.8–35.7 percent in females. There is no universally accepted body fat percentage at which six-packs become visible, typical ballpark ranges are 10–12 percent body fat for men and 16–20 percent body fat for women.
Besides, Tyler Read (2021) opined that these figures are too low for those needed for optimal general health and fitness despite the popular association between visible abs and optimal fitness. This notwithstanding, he pointed to one article by Harvard Health that asserts that the excess visceral fat, which is located deeper in the abdomen and surrounds our organs, is far more dangerous to our health than excess subcutaneous fat, which lies just under our skin and coves our muscles from the outside.
Hence, he believes that more levels of visceral fat may not affect the visibility of the six-pack to the same extent as subcutaneous fat, even though excess visceral fat is a greater health concern.
Also, genetics influences where you store body fat, which greatly influences the specific body fat percentage at which your abs will be visible. Tyler Read (2021) notes that if one stores more fat in the hips, the abs will be visible at higher body fat percentages and vice versa. Lifestyle factors, such as sleep and stress levels, also affect fat gains, which will affect the visibility of your abs.
He justified this with one study by Cooper et al. (2018) that found regularly sleeping less than 7 hours was linked with greater rates of obesity and weight gain. They also found that sleep deprivation has negative effects on ghrelin, leptin and insulin, which are key hormones for regulating hunger and fat storage in the body. Another study by Valk et al. (2018) found that higher stress levels, as reflected by greater glucocorticoid activity, were also associated with increased rates of obesity.
Despite these factors, a surplus calorie intake will typically lead to fat gains over time, which will decrease the visibility of your six-pack — independent of any other factors.
Should 6-packs be the major goal in exercise?
Read had this to say: “While it’s OK to strive for aesthetic fitness goals like having visible abs, the truth is that your core and abdominals play a much more important role than just being nice to look at. The rectus abdominis is just one of many muscles in the so-called core, which is a series of muscles that span the hips to the thoracic spine and include superficial and deep layers as well as different muscles along the front, side and back of your lower torso. Collectively, the core muscles stabilise the spine and allow it to bend and twist as required for functional activities. The biggest benefits of core training have nothing to do with visible abdominals. Furthermore, the abdominals are just one of many core muscles you should target in your routine”.
He further says that additional core muscles that play a vital role include:
- transverse abdominis
- pelvic floor
- internal and external obliques
- quadratus lumborum
A large body of evidence supports core training for a variety of improved outcomes across different populations.
For instance, Hsu et al. (2018) study found that 4 weeks of core strength training enhanced performance on sudden perturbation tasks correlates to our ability to catch ourselves and stand upright when we’re about to fall over. Also, another study by Hung et al. (2019) found that found that an 8-week core training programme enhanced static balance, core endurance, and running economy in college running athletes.
Finally, Chang et al. (2015) study on core training and low back pain found that all core routines studied enhanced lower back pain. Frequent ones that targetted the deeper core muscles, such as the transverse abdominis and multifidus, had the greatest positive effects on lower back pain. Read finally summed it all: “It’s worth noting that training the core may help build more muscle mass in that region, which will add more contour to your six-pack and potentially allow it to be visible at slightly higher body fat levels.
However, you will still need to have relatively low body fat for this effect to occur, and the main reasons to train the core have more to do with performance and health benefits rather than aesthetic appearances”.
In conclusion, getting six packs alone is not enough, and researchers believe that those who engaged in them have no confidence in themselves, they drink more and have mental health issues, leading to depression because they are not happy with their natural bodies. Also, six packs don’t automatically make you fit, neither do they mean you’re underweight or addicted to exercise. Those abs aren’t great correlations for much of anything and these are not markers of health and wellness.
Prof. Nyarkotey has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations to justify his write-ups. My articles are for educational purposes and do not serve as medical advice for treatment. I aim to educate the public about evidence-based scientific naturopathic therapies.
The writer is a Professor of Naturopathic Healthcare, a Medical Journalist, and a science writer. President, Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT), African Naturopathic Foundation, Ashaiman, Ghana. E. mail: [email protected].
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