America is Still Working on Its Abs

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America is Still Working on its Abs

Newspaper article

By: Alex Williams

Date: March 27, 2005

Source: Alex Williams. "America Is Still Working on Its Abs.". New York Times (March 27, 2005): Section 9, Page 1.

About the Author: Since 1989, Alex Williams has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, television broadcast anchor, and online journalist. He holds a master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and prevention, obesity is the second leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Excess weight has been linked to a variety of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease.

The quest to shed weight has spawned a multibillion dollar industry in the United States alone, encompassing nutritional and fitness-related approaches. Some exercise programs such as aerobics were designed primarily to improve cardiovascular fitness. Increased muscle strength and fat loss tend to be additional benefits of improved cardiovascular endurance. Other fitness programs, in particular weightlifting, focus on building strength and on toning the body.

The latter is associated with a flat stomach and prominent abdominal muscles (popularly dubbed "a six-pack", in recognition of the three pairs of abdominal muscles). Exercise regimens such as pilates and yoga, and the use of aids such as the medicine ball all target the abdominal muscles. This approach is known as core conditioning.

Core muscles are those attached to the spine or pelvis; these include the transversus abdominis—the muscles of the pelvic floor in the lower portion of the torso, and the lats and obliques in the middle and upper torso. The core is also called the powerhouse muscle group, as much of the power of movement and stability arise from here.

The premise behind core conditioning is that a strong midsection will increase both agility and the range of available physical activities. Stability as well as core strength (abdominal and lower-back muscles) are addressed using one-sided body weight exercises, balance boards, and stability balls. Properly accomplished, core conditioning mimics movements done in day-to-day living and sports. However, as with any popular fitness approach, core conditioning can be exploited for fast profit at the expense of negligible fitness gain and, even worse, the possibility of physical injury.

Fitness fads often arise from the participation of a recognizable celebrity. Examples include the aerobics approaches popularized by Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda in the 1970s. Related fitness fads include Jazzercise and Tae Bo (a combination of aerobics and martial arts movement). The presence of a charismatic and fit spokesperson helps a fitness regimen become popular. Similarly, celebrities like Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley have helped popularize exercise equipment as an aid to achieving muscular and cardiovascular improvement.


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Fitness fads, by definition, wane in popularity after a time. Some people may go on to try other fitness approaches or diet solutions, with varying degrees of success. However, what begins as a fitness fad can become the basis of a solid fitness program. Aerobics is one example. While the numbers of aerobics enthusiasts may have tapered from the millions of Americans who went to aerobics studios and health clubs in the 1970s and 1980s, the cardiovascular approach to fitness targeted by aerobics remains a solid mainstream fitness strategy. Thus, a fitness fad can be the beginning of a longer-term fitness program.

In addition to physical activities, diets can become a focus of a fitness campaign. Various popular diets have emphasized proteins or carbohydrates as a means to shed weight. Rigid diets can sometimes be successful in the short-term, but, for long-term fitness, a diet that is part of a healthier long-term approach to everyday food choices (such as Weight Watchers) tends to be more successful. Indeed, a report published in the January 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine reported that of the ten most popular weight loss programs in the United States, only Weight Watchers could be proven to be a means of successfully losing weight while maintaining healthy eating habits.

Like any fad, fitness fads can be exploited by those seeking profit. Americans spent over fifteen billion dollars in 2004 seeking physical fitness, including almost ten billion dollars on gym memberships and about five billion dollars on home exercise equipment. Although few of the myriad of exercise products are tested for efficacy (effectiveness), the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission regularly tests exercise products for safety, issues recalls, and reports unsafe exercise products to the public.



American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Fitness Book. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2003.


Johnson, Dan. "Tracking Fitness: From Fashion Fad to Health Trend." The Futurist 32 (May 1998): 4, 8.

Web sites

American Council on Exercise. "Is the AB-DOer a Don't?" 〈〉 (accessed May 2, 2005).

U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. 〈〉 (accessed January 20, 2006).

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America is Still Working on Its Abs

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