Jun 23, 2023

Does a waist trainer really work?

After Kim Kardashian shared the details of the extreme three-week 16-pound weight-loss regimen she undertook to squeeze into an iconic Marilyn Monroe gown for this month’s Met Gala, the result was hardly the admiration she likely expected. The reality TV star was excoriated on social media not only for publicizing her potentially harmful crash diet, but also for advocating unhealthy slimming strategies in the past — including endorsing and selling a popular shapewear product that persists against the best medical advice: the waist trainer.

“Kim Kardashian looked beautiful at the Met Gala, but she has promoted unrealistic body standards for YEARS (diet teas, waist trainers, $$$ procedures, etc) and her talking about losing 16 lbs in 3 weeks to fit into Marilyn’s dress (which no one should get to wear) is appalling,” Gabrielle Starr, founder of the sports website Girl at the Game, wrote on Twitter.

You don’t have to love or hate your body. Here’s how to adopt ‘body neutrality.’

Waist trainers, for those not in the know, are undergarments that create an hourglass figure by tightly compressing the waist. They gained popularity during the 2010s thanks to praise from celebrities and Instagram influencers including the Kardashian family, and remain so despite being roundly panned by health experts. Kardashian’s shapewear company, Skims, started selling a $68 waist trainer in the fall of 2019; similar products come from a variety of other brands, including YIANNA ($23 to $32), LODAY ($22) and Spanx ($68).

A post shared by Kim Kardashian (@kimkardashian)

If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “They’re basically glorified corsets,” said Stephanie Faubion, the director of Mayo Clinic Women’s Health in Jacksonville, Fla. “I’m sorry to see that we’ve reverted to the 1800s.”

Those who endorse waist trainers on social media claim that wearing them regularly, for a period of months, trains their waist into an hourglass shape and promotes weight loss because they eat less (some trainers are designed to stimulate sweating, which allegedly leads to accelerated burning of belly fat). Some devotees even sleep in them overnight.

But health experts say the alleged benefits are all hype. In fact, the name “waist trainer” is a misnomer, said Faubion, who is also medical director of The North American Menopause Society. “It’s not training your waist to do anything different. It’s not going to change your shape,” she said. “It’s your waist – it’s not a dog.”

Wearing a waist trainer for a couple hours during a night out — to gain a certain aesthetic — is fine, said Daisy Ayim, a Houston-based cosmetic surgeon and OB/GYN. “If your goal is to look really good in that outfit, yes, you’ll have the benefit of an hourglass figure temporarily,” she said.

Some people may indeed experience weight loss after wearing a waist trainer, Ayim noted — but any pounds dropped are likely to be water weight. The garments are heavy and don’t breathe well, so while wearing one, you’re likely to sweat more, and weight lost this way will quickly return. Excess sweating does not chip away at belly fat, she said.

Waist trainers aren’t likely to trim your appetite either. In one study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, researchers examined whether wearing a corset could help people maintain weight loss they achieved by following a low-calorie diet. The study authors ultimately couldn’t reach any conclusions because the corsets were so uncomfortable, participants weren’t compliant with wearing them.

Some waist trainers are marketed toward women recovering from giving birth. According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, wearing an abdominal binder after a cesarean delivery led to less pain and bleeding, compared to not wearing one. In specific situations, some people will benefit from wearing a belly wrap or binder, said Natalie Toshkoff, a pelvic floor physical therapist based in New York. It could offer stability and feel good on their incision, “like a hand always there for support. But I wouldn’t say a waist trainer would be my first choice for that.”

Although research is scarce, experts agree that regularly wearing a waist trainer creates a variety of risks. “This is not a benign thing you’re doing,” said Jennifer Wider, a New York-based doctor who specializes in women’s health.

Waist trainers can:

Restrict your breathing. Waist trainers are very tight, and wearing them restricts your diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates your heart and lungs from other organs, Toshkoff explains. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts; when you breathe out, it relaxes. But if you’re wearing a waist trainer, “it’s not going to be able to go through its full range of motion,” she said. After many hours, or repeated use, “that can be not great for your breathing.” (Kardashian wore a waist trainer to the 2019 Met Gala and revealed that she had to take corset-breathing lessons.)

A post shared by Kim Kardashian (@kimkardashian)

Many TikTok videos feature people wearing waist trainers as they work out, claiming that doing so facilitates weight loss. But this can be dangerous: “You’re compressing your diaphragm,” Wider said. “You’re not able to take a really solid, deep breath when you’re exercising.” If you don’t get enough oxygen, she said, you could pass out.

Affect your internal organs. The compression created by a waist trainer “can have an impact on your internal organs and how they function,” said Dena Barsoum, a physiatrist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Hospital for Special Surgery in White Plains, N.Y. “All of our organs require room to work, and a waist trainer really limits that space.”

Long-term use can shift your organs — like your kidneys — into unnatural positions, and even cut off the blood flow that allows them to function properly. There’s not enough research available to understand whether this damage is permanent, experts agree.

Even centuries ago, doctors noted instances of their patients wearing corsets experiencing internal organ damage. In research published in Cureus in 2020, the study authors said that wearing restricting garments could contribute to organ damage via “compression, bruising and ischemia,” and added that further research was warranted. (Ischemia refers to an inadequate blood supply.)

Cause digestive issues. Waist trainers squish your digestive system, which could lead to constipation by “blocking the normal motility and flow of materials through the intestines,” Barsoum said. You might also experience heartburn because it puts pressure on your lower esophagus and causes “backflow of fluids through your stomach,” she said.

Weaken your musculoskeletal system. Muscles get stronger via activity, “so if a waist trainer is holding your waist in a certain position, the muscles aren't doing anything,” Barsoum said. “The muscles can sometimes get weaker because they’re not having to do any work.”

That’s one reason experts recommend only wearing a waist trainer for small blips of time, like during a big event, if at all. Sleeping in one or wearing one all day, week after week, will dissipate core strength.

Faubion said reducing belly fat is a worthy goal: Extra fat around the stomach is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. “But the waist trainer isn’t going to take care of that,” she said.

So what will? Faubion recommends prioritizing a healthy diet, especially cutting simple carbohydrates, such as sugary drinks and baked goods. Ayim agrees that “good nutrition is the way to go" and suggests complementing it with regular exercise.

“The only way to approach a waist trainer is to see it as a temporary fix,” Ayim said. “Nothing slimming comes out of it, nothing permanent comes out of it and nothing meaningful comes out of it.”