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Weak abdominal muscles can be linked to back pain, but many of us ignore ab exercises. (Courtesy photo)

The abs have it. If you could focus on only one part of your body to change and strengthen, consider spending the rest of this year on your abdominal muscles.

Here is why you should—and a simple exercise for getting the abs you deserve.

The abdominal muscles, from the rib cage down to the pelvis, control how you move as much as how you look. When they are weak the belly protrudes, hanging over the belt and jiggling its way along. The distended belly acts like a see-saw, with the weight providing an enormous strain on the muscles of the back to prevent you from falling over. Back pain, so common in adults, is often caused by weak abdominal muscles and can be cured by strengthening them. Yet abdominal exercises are often ignored by many of us.

The classic sit up was how we were taught to do abdominal exercises. Yet getting on the floor and crunching your abdomen into a sit up is painful for many older people, and impossible for many with arthritis. Also, it is difficult to develop a sustainable rhythm that permits enough of the exercises to be performed.

An exercise ball provides the easiest pathway to rock hard abs. Lay on a large ball centered in the middle of your back with your feet resting against a wall. Lean back far enough to see the ceiling, while resting your hands on your belly slowly bend forward to an upright. This is the motion that works. Suck in your belly button while doing this exercise and it will engage the entire range of upper and lower abdominal muscles.

Don’t count. It is not a matter of how many reps you do. It is all about relaxing your mind by closing your eyes and feeling the rhythm of the motion and the gradual training of the muscles. Find the pace that permits your mind to wander and the exercise to continue forever. Set your phone timer to 5 minutes, and slowly progress to 15 minutes over the course of three months.

To make the exercise gradually more difficult, hold a 5 to 20 lb. weight. Swing the weight behind your head when leaning back, and bring it forward as you sit up. Be sure to hold your belly button in.

The mesmerizing rhythm of this exercise makes it addictive, and remarkably effective. Do it daily, and notice the stunning effects on your body, your self- image, and your ability to move without so much pain.

Now when walking or sitting hold your abdomen in, set your shoulders behind your hips, hold your head high, and smile. The key to molding our bodies to fit the image we want for ourselves lies in adopting everyday behaviors that walk the talk—even if the conversation is only inside our head.

Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.

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