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From Corsets to Waist Trainers
Fashion Fitness Trends

Trying on a waist trainer.
Trying on a waist trainer.

Fashion is famous for repeating itself. It's said that if you live long enough, many of the things that were in style during your youth will return.

Fitness ideas go through cycles too. I've seen things like low-carb diets grow, fade and come roaring back. Ab machines are a recurring theme, and extreme workouts seem to reappear every 15 years or so.

The most surprising fitness trend I've seen re-emerge is something called a Waist Trainer. They remade the corset, gave it a new name and convinced people to buy them again.

The history of the corset goes back more than 500 years. It's gone through many changes, from early versions that used whalebone for stiffening to modern ones that rely on velcro and neoprene. The way they work is simple. Wrap it tightly around your waist, then it cinches things in and makes your waist look smaller.

There's no weight loss magic, just a garment that squeezes everything in tight.

To sell more, the marketing people take over. Instead of a temporary change in appearance, they're marketed as a weight loss and fitness device. Here's what they claim.

  1. Improve your posture and get a better workout. The waist trainer helps strengthen your core, maintain proper body alignment and improve your workout.

  2. Burn more calories in your stomach. The waist trainer acts like a sauna around your belly to sweat off more fat.

  3. Make your stomach smaller so you can't eat as much. The waist trainer compresses your belly, so there's not as much room for food.

  4. Help you breathe properly.

The problem is, none of those claims are true. Here's what science says.

Claim 1: Improve your posture and get a better workout.

Like any muscle, the abdominal and core muscles grow when being challenged. If they're continually being supported or assisted by a waist trainer, they won't grow in proportion to other muscles doing the lifts. Should the day ever come where you forget or decide not to use the waist trainer, your under-developed abdominal muscles won't be able to keep up with the rest of your over-developed muscles. Injury is often the result.

Additional problems happen when the waist trainers are extra wide. When you bend forward doing exercises like a squat, a tight and wide waist trainer can partially immobilize your upper lumbar segments, forcing the lower lumbar disks to do even more work. This can cause accelerated degeneration of the lower disks.

It doesn't stop there. When you reduce the natural rotation of the lumbar spine, you also reduce the workload on the lumbar stabilizer muscles. This can also accelerate disk degeneration.

An 1893 advertisement of corsets for men.
An 1893 advertisement of corsets for men.

Claim 2: Burn more calories in your stomach.

What you get is short-term water displacement from perspiration or compression. Take off the waist trainer, wait an hour or two, measure again, and the inches are back.

To see this effect first hand, take a rubber band. Wrap it around a finger and leave it on for a few minutes. Take it off and where the rubber band was is an indent. No weight loss, and after an hour or so, the indent is gone. Waist trainers are especially dangerous because they can bring about injury from circulatory constriction.

An 1886 ad of corsets for women and children. Notice how they try to link the words Good and Health with the dangerous product?

An 1886 ad of corsets for women and children. Notice how they try to link the words Good and Health with the dangerous product? We laugh at ads promoting unhealthy behaviors in the past; why don't we do the same today?

Claim 3: Make your stomach smaller so you can't eat as much.

Waist trainers do compress the space around your stomach, but they also put pressure on other vital organs in your midsection.

All that pressure is known to cause blood clots, bruising, fractured ribs and gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). Waist trainers have also been found responsible for a condition called meralgia paresthetica, a tingling, numbness and burning sensation in your outer thigh. They can even impact a woman's menstrual cycle. If waist trainers are worn for extended periods, they can cut off blood flow and strangle your organs, resulting in death.

Claim 4: Help you breathe properly.

Wearing a waist trainer for extended periods can change your diaphragmatic breathing pattern. You don't breathe from the belly as much as the chest, which can cause tension headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, fainting, poor posture and even accelerated degenerative changes in the cervical spine.

Waist trainers are nothing more than corsets with a new name and new claims. They're dangerous and shouldn't be part of any fitness wardrobe.

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