AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today in Your Health, we're going to tackle an issue that affects about half of all mothers. The technical term is diastasis recti, but many of us know it by another name - mommy pooch - you know, that soft belly that bulges out a bit. Well, ladies, now a fitness trainer and a doctor say they have come up with a quick way to fix it. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff tried it out to see if it really works.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: OK, so I admit it. I have mommy pooch. I had my first baby about a year and a half ago. And my stomach - well, it feels a bit like pudding even though I've lost all the baby weight. So when I saw an ad on Facebook for a class that could possibly fix the pooch, I thought, why not? A few weeks later, I'm rolling out a yoga mat on the floor with a dozen other moms in San Francisco.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.
DOUCLEFF: The class is led by Leah Keller, a personal trainer from New York City.
LEAH KELLER: Thank you so much for coming. I'm excited to...
DOUCLEFF: She's decked out in yoga pants and cowboy boots. She's in impeccable shape and has seemingly endless knowledge about abdominal muscles.
KELLER: We're going to get the obliques to fire along with the transverse rectus when we're doing the core compressions.
DOUCLEFF: She starts off by explaining what causes mommy pooch in the first place.
KELLER: So if you've had a baby - and all of you in here have mentioned that you have babies or children - you probably had some degree of abdominal separation.
DOUCLEFF: Abdominal separation - that's the key. Basically, when you're pregnant, the growing fetus pushes apart your abdominal muscles right around your bellybutton. In some cases, the separation closes on its own. But often, it stays open.
KELLER: So if you have this condition, you will have somewhat of a pooch.
DOUCLEFF: Because there's a gap in the muscles, there's nothing to hold in your stomach and your other organs, so they just kind of bulge out.
KELLER: When the muscles don't come back together, you kind of look like you might be, like, four months pregnant, five months pregnant, depending on the severity.
DOUCLEFF: And so to help moms get rid of the pooch, Keller has developed an exercise - one key exercise that is supposed to pull the muscles back together. She says all you need to do is this exercise 10 minutes a day. And then...
KELLER: We will see dramatic change. You can easily expect to see two inches off your waist in the - in three weeks of time. That's not an unrealistic expectation.
DOUCLEFF: OK, wait a second. Two inches off my belly in three weeks - are you kidding? This sounds too good to be true. So I started digging into the science behind Keller's claim and called up one of the doctors who helped develop the method. Her name is Dr. Geeta Sharma. She's an OB-GYN at Weill Cornell Medical in New York City. And she's seen hundreds of women with abdominal separation.
GEETA SHARMA: This is such a ubiquitous issue.
DOUCLEFF: Which, she says, occurs in over 40 percent of new moms. And Sharma says abdominal separation is not just a cosmetic problem. It can also cause another big issue - back pain.
SHARMA: People will start feeling some back pain, and we don't want them to just have to live with their pain. We want them to be able to do something to try and help make it better and keep it from getting worse.
DOUCLEFF: ...Which brings us back to the exercises. If you search on the internet for ways to fix abdominal separation, you'll get a deluge of information. Even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has its own exercise suggestions, which it recommends doing while still pregnant. But Sharma says there's a big problem. No one has rigorously studied these exercises to see if they work.
SHARMA: There is a general knowledge that exercise is going to help - but not really studied in a very standardized way.
DOUCLEFF: Now she wants to change that. A few years ago, she teamed up with Keller to start testing her method.
SHARMA: What we looked at was a pilot study to try and assess the efficacy.
DOUCLEFF: And the results were quite promising. Sharma presented them at ACOG's annual meeting. The study was small - just 63 women. But after 12 weeks of doing Keller's exercise, all the women had fixed their abdominal separation, even moms who had had a baby a year before.
SHARMA: And that was really reassuring - that they still had such great, you know, benefit from doing the exercises.
DOUCLEFF: So, actually, these exercises do, like, heal that area and bring those muscles back together?
SHARMA: They can. And, you know, we love to see that. We love to see that there's actually something that we can do to help.
DOUCLEFF: So now the pressure is on for me to fix the mommy pooch. If other moms can do it, I should be able to do it, too.
KELLER: OK. We're going to do another set.
DOUCLEFF: Back at the class in San Francisco, Keller is leading the moms through the key exercise. And it's surprisingly simple to do.
KELLER: Relax the shoulders.
DOUCLEFF: We are all sitting on the floor cross-legged with our hands on our bellies. Then we take a deep breath.
KELLER: Let the belly fully expand.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXHALE)
DOUCLEFF: As we exhale, we suck our bellybuttons back as far as we can.
KELLER: Exhale. Squeeze all the way back to the spine.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXHALE)
DOUCLEFF: Then we hold in this position, and take little tiny breaths.
KELLER: And exhale as you squeeze tighter.
(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING)
DOUCLEFF: With each breath, we pull the belly back further and further into the spine...
KELLER: Very small, very intense, very tight squeeze...
(SOUNDBITE OF BREATHING)
DOUCLEFF: ...For 10 minutes.
KELLER: And you're done. Good work.
DOUCLEFF: This is our fourth class, and it's also Judgment Day. Keller pulls out a measuring tape...
(SOUNDBITE OF MEASURING TAPE EXTENDING)
DOUCLEFF: ...And starts wrapping it around women's bellies to see how many inches they've lost.
KELLER: Who's next?
DOUCLEFF: There's just success after success. Some moms completely closed up the abdominal separation.
KELLER: You are as tight as you can be.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right (laughter).
KELLER: You scored A-plus. Wow, amazing.
DOUCLEFF: One woman had incredible results.
KELLER: Oh, my goodness, Cat (ph). You made a dramatic improvement in the belly circumference.
DOUCLEFF: She lost nearly 4 inches off her belly in three weeks.
DOUCLEFF: Then it's my turn. And I'm really nervous.
KELLER: She's, like, hiding. OK, are you ready?
DOUCLEFF: Let's get this over with. I'm ready (laughter).
In the end, I didn't quite fix my abdominal separation. It got better but not resolved. But my belly circumference...
KELLER: Thirty-three and 3/4 to 32 1/2...
DOUCLEFF: OK, so an inch?
KELLER: So that's an inch and a quarter.
DOUCLEFF: Inch and a quarter, all right.
KELLER: An inch and a quarter...
DOUCLEFF: ...Dropped more than an inch. And, actually, I'm super happy with the results. My stomach is much firmer. But the best part - the exercise really cut down on my back pain. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
CHANG: At NPR's Shots blog, you can find more tips and also figure out if you have abdominal separation.
(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "CANDACE BOUVARD")
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