Sit-ups can give you a saggy stomach

Publication: Mail Online | 04/02/2016

Sit-ups can give you a saggy stomach: They’re the most agonising exercise. Now (oh the irony!) experts warn of their dangers

Like most new mothers, Becky Stevens was desperate to get her flat stomach back. Spurred on by pictures of celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham and Abbey Clancy showing off toned midriffs just weeks after giving birth, she was determined to hit the gym and shrink her ‘mum tum’. 

And what better way, she thought, than doing sit-ups? For those who do not know - and there can’t be many - the sit-up is where you lie flat on the floor and raise your upper body to a sitting position, using the abdominal muscles to pull you up.

Becky, mother to twins Lettice and Edith, seven, Ottilie, five, and 14-month-old Tattie, began to exercise as soon as her doctor gave the all-clear after each of her pregnancies. But following Tattie’s birth, despite doing up to 70 sit-ups a time in twice-weekly exercise classes, her tum was actually getting worse.

‘It seemed to stick out and became dome shaped,’ Becky remembers. ‘The more I did, the more pot-bellied I became. I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong.

‘I was being careful to eat sensibly and wasn’t retaining weight anywhere else. My neck was painful, too. In the end, I developed this strange lump on my abdomen underneath my belly button.

‘One day I pulled up my top to show my mother-in-law my belly button had not gone down after the birth. She wondered if I had a hernia - something that hadn’t even occurred to me.’

Becky, 38, had it checked and found this was correct. Her abdominal muscles, which normally meet in the middle but were pulled apart to stretch over her bump during pregnancy, had failed to reconnect properly.

The condition, which is called diastasis recti and affects around one in three mothers, left Becky with just a thin band of connective tissue between her abdominal muscles to hold in her internal organs.

‘With every sit-up I was doing, I was forcing my organs outwards until a section of my intestine popped out, forming an acorn-sized hernia underneath my belly button.’

She adds: ‘By going back to exercise after my babies were born, I thought I was doing the right thing. Sit-ups are still seen as the obvious move to do. You think of celebs going “crunch, crunch, crunch” and then being seen with flat-as-a-pancake stomachs.

Beyond what sit-ups do to your body, there is also the matter of what they can do to your looks. Dr David Eccleston, of Birmingham’s MediZen Clinic, says that, over time, repeated sit-ups can ruin your appearance, giving you a craggy-looking turkey neck.

He says: ‘The platysma is a broad, thin sheet of muscles stretching from the jaw to the upper chest. As the skin ages and thins, the muscles look like bands.

‘There are usually between two and four on each side of the neck. The more sit-ups you do, where the abdominal muscles are not fully engaged, the more you force these muscles to contract to help lift your head off the floor. Over time, they become more defined and noticeable.’

With women not getting clear advice on exercise, and blithely hitting the gym mat week after week, many like Becky are finding out too late the cost of over-doing sit-ups.

With a 14-month-old baby to care for, the last thing she wants is an operation to repair her hernia, which would leave her unable to pick up her baby daughter for several weeks.

So she is left with an unsightly bump behind her belly button, which means she avoids tight tops and is self-conscious wearing bathing costumes on the beach.

Becky says: ‘I see lots of yummy-mummies out there who want to get straight back into shape but who are not getting clear guidance about when it’s safe to start or what it’s safe to do

‘Now, when I see them do sit-ups, as I once did, I wince. I know all too well no mum should attempt this kind of exercise without taking the proper advice.

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