Well-toned abdominal muscles can be good for more than just looks, Peggy Williams, 47, discovered during a paragliding trip to Andalusia, Spain last month.
Before she could take off properly, a gust of wind lifted Williams paraglider off the ground, dragging her backwards. She flipped over and was dragged on her stomach, not on the graveled take off area but on the rocks beyond.
"I got a smack in my abdomen, right across it with a big rock," Williams said. "It didn't wind me but it took the air out of my lungs."
Williams suffered a torn liver and pancreas, a few scratches on her arms and legs and numerous bruises. She spent two days in intensive care, another six days of bed rest before she could sit up in a chair, but she did not require surgery and was not hemorrhaging internally.
"The doctors said someone with my injuries would be sent straight into surgery," Williams said. "But they told me 'you're fit. Your muscles helped you and saved you from anything worse.'"
Internal organs are vulnerable to blunt trauma, or trauma that occurs upon impact but without penetration.
"Whenever you hit a part of the body, the organs underneath are protected to some degree by the musculoskeletal system [muscles and bones]," said Dr. Lisa Callahan, medical director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. "The stronger those things are the more they're going to protect you."
But strong muscles alone are not the most important protection for people who suffer serious injuries. The laws of physics override a washboard stomach. Upon impact, the body may stop but the internal organs are still moving and can get lacerated like Williams' liver and pancreas.
"It's not the high speed that kills people, it's the sudden decrease to zero that does," said Dr. Daniel Handel, director of clinical operations in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
But healthy, toned people are better primed to bounce back from serious injury. For example, their heart rates tend to be lower, lowering their risk of internal bleeding, and their bodies are better at using oxygen, which speeds the healing process.
"People in good health have a better chance of survival in traumatic events like this," Handel said. "They have a better chance to heal."
Handel pointed out that carrying extra weight does not provide the cushioning effect upon impact that one might expect. Rather, obesity can lead to more complications, such as wound infection, and risk due to less-efficient blood circulation.
Williams, from Clapton, Somerset, in the United Kingdom, said her fitness routine includes one minute of sit-ups and crunches every day as well as two to three runs each week.
"I'm very grateful for that minute-a-day exercise," Williams said.
Aside from bruising and a small skinned spot on her ribs, Williams said that her stomach does not look injured and her accident won't keep her from her favorite activities.
"It looks the same," Williams said. "You wouldn't know I was hurt, and I was lucky not to have surgery. I intend to go back and continue [paragliding]. But I'm just glad to be home."