When it comes to shaping up, the belly commands a lot of attention, with many people seeking trimmer waists and maybe even washboard abs. As the center of our bodies, bellies are very visible and have a noticeable influence on overall physique. It’s no surprise, then, that many individuals want to know how to lose belly fat.
Just consider all the “magic” pills and drinks and exercise gadgets that promise to shape your midsection fast. While there isn’t a quick fix for belly fat – and many of these advertised methods are fruitless, or even dangerous – safer and more effective ways exist that can help you slim your center.
How much belly fat is too much? Most of us can decide simply by looking in the mirror, but use a measuring tape around your waist at your belly button, while standing up, to check your girth. Experts recommend a woman’s waist should be less than 35 inches; and if you’re a man, less than 40 inches.
Understanding Fat and Exercise Physiology
First, it’s important to understand the truth about fat and fat loss – which isn’t usually the message shared on those late night infomericals for the Belly Blaster, for instance.
There are two types of fat – one is subcutaneous, which sits directly under the skin to provide insulation and is most visible. Visceral fat is deeper and surrounds the organs, such as the heart and lungs, to provide protective cushioning. Both are important to survival, but too much of either can lead to conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Fat is influenced by genetics, and women tend to have six to 11 percent more body fat than men, typically storing it more in the hips and thighs, while men tend to accumulate fat in the belly. To lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you eat through food. When a caloric deficit exists, the body turns to its fat reserves as fuel. As fat is metabolized, fat stores shrink and fat loss results.
Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, we cannot dictate where fat is burned. So while some think that they can lose belly fat by doing hundreds of crunches, exercise physiology doesn’t support this. Just because you are performing crunches doesn’t mean that the body is using belly fat to fuel that exercise. It may, in fact, be using fat from the thighs or elsewhere. The body determines where it metabolizes fat for any exercise.
Plus, crunches work the rectus abdominus muscle, but since it lies under subcutaneous fat, this washboard won’t be visible without the fat layer on top reduced first. In other words, you can have strong ab muscles that still are buried under a layer of fat.
To burn body fat, you must do cardiovascular activity regularly for 20-60 minutes, several times each week, elevating your heart rate to 75-85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), which is rigorous. Even better, interval training can boost fat burn, caloric expenditure and metabolism. This involves alternating high-intensity intervals of 80-85% of MHR for 20-120 seconds with recovery periods at 65-70% MHR for 10-120 seconds for the duration of the workout, plus a warm-up and cooldown. Proper intensity and sufficient workout frequency and duration will help expedite fat loss.
While cardiovascular exercise burns fat, strength training tones muscles for a leaner physique and a higher metabolism. With greater muscle mass, you burn more calories at rest and during exercise, which can help decrease belly fat and overall body fat. Do exercises that work the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body 2-4 times each week.
And don’t neglect to work your core with crunches, planks, rotational and lateral flexion moves, and more, as this area is essential to overall strength and proper posture, which help you move and look better. Combining cardio and strength training is the most effective exercise plan to lose belly fat.
Finally, try to be more active throughout your day to continue burning more calories. Most of us sit way too much, so consciously stand when you are on the phone, walk to a co-worker’s desk rather than send an email, take a walk at lunch or after work, do calisthenics or stretches while watching TV, get out in the garden or yard, run errands on your bike or on foot and park farther away from your destination so you can hoof it there. Every little bit of activity adds up.
Of course, exercise is only part of the equation. To lose belly fat, you must also follow a smart eating plan that restricts calories and minimizes intake of high-calorie, high-fat foods such as sugary sweets, chocolate, fried foods and alcohol. That doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself occasionally, but the bulk of your diet 80-90 percent of the time should be healthy, low-fat choices such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products and water.
As you age, your body produces more insulin, which can lead to belly fat. Eating a diet high in protein (lean meats, low-fat dairy and nuts) can help minimize this insulin resistance. High-fiber food, such as whole grain pasta, cruciferous vegetables, beans and apples, fill you up, and research shows that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day — without any other diet changes — built up less visceral fat over time than others.
Aim to eat consistently throughout the day, without skipping meals, to keep your metabolism humming along. Be sure to eat something for breakfast, as this important meal kicks off your metabolism for the day.
Remember to hydrate as well, as dehydration can slow metabolism and trick us into feeling hungry when we simply are thirsty. Choose calorie-free beverages, such as water, tea, and black coffee as your standbys. Other choices, such as soda, alcohol and even smoothies are high in sugar and calories, and the body is less likely to feel full from a beverage.
Stress and Sleep
It’s important to find ways to manage your stress and get enough sleep, as high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to an increase in or maintenance of body fat levels.
Research also shows that chronic sleep deprivation causes stress and interferes with hormones that regulate appetite, which can be a double-whammy against belly fat. One study showed that people who got 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night gained less visceral fat over 5 years compared to those who slept 5 or fewer hours per night or 8 or more hours per night.
Strive to maintain similar sleep habits on the weekdays and weekends as well, as research shows that people with chaotic sleep patterns tend to have higher levels of cortisol and visceral fat.
Try meditation, yoga, relaxation exercises or other stress management techniques to improve the health of your mind and body. Turn off electronics and aim to get to bed earlier as a valuable, healthy habit.
The bottom line is that no one thing can cause you to lose belly fat, but instead, it takes a smart combination of exercise, diet, sleep and stress management to help keep you trim in the waist.