In our everlasting effort to achieve a flat belly, many of us rely on sit-ups, the staple of many school exercise programs. Now, there’s evidence this classic workout move is likely doing more harm than good, as dozens of studies have revealed that sit-ups may cause serious back pain and spinal disc problems, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Generations of U.S. sailors performed sit-ups in the Navy’s physical fitness test. Now, the Navy may be phasing out the sit-up due to the mounting evidence of related back injury risks, according to a recent editorial in the Navy Times. The Canadian Armed Forces has also cut the sit-up from fitness tests for the same reason.
The sit-up is an effort to defy gravity and upper-body weight, requiring clenched hands behind the head and an attempt to touch elbows to knees. When we do this, we are putting over 100 pounds of compressive force on the spine. If this force is combined with the repeated up-and-down flexing motion, sit-ups can squeeze the discs in the spine, causing bulging and herniated discs and putting pressure on nerves, explains Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at Canada’s University of Waterloo. If you’re wondering if stability exercise balls can make a difference, the back-injury risk really depends on the motion and the person’s physical limitations (but note some fitness experts have phased out ball-supported sit-ups as well).
If trimming belly fat is your ultimate goal, simply walking is more effective than sit-ups, says Gary R. Hunter, MD, professor of human studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Hunter also advises cutting calories and adopting an exercise program that combines weight training with endurance training (e.g. running, swimming and rowing). You can also try Pilates, which seems to be a favorite among many a celebrity. So whether you’re aiming for washboard abs or simply want to feel lighter and better, get moving—just make sure your spine doesn’t pay for it.