Stubborn belly fat becomes more of a problem as people age. These unwelcome deposits of fat show up as an extra roll of fat around the middle or as a muffin top when you put on your favorite pair of jeans. Another type of belly fat is less obvious because it lies deep within your pelvic cavity and forms a layer of blubber around your internal organs. This form of fat, called visceral fat, is the unhealthiest of all since it’s linked with metabolic syndrome, a risk factor for type 2-diabetes and heart disease. Visceral or “hidden” belly fat often manifests as an increase in waist size along with weight gain in the upper half of the body.
Being female offers some protection against unwanted belly fat, at least during the first half of life. Men usually fight a more intense battle with stubborn abdominal fat than women until women go through menopause. After menopause, many women notice a gradual increase in waist size and develop excess tummy fat they didn’t have before. Unfortunately, insulin sensitivity declines with age. As insulin becomes less efficient at doing its job of getting glucose into cells, your pancreas has to produce more. This leads to insulin resistance, which is linked to a gradual increase in waist size. Aging and a decrease in insulin sensitivity, especially when combined with a poor diet makes it especially challenging to shed belly fat.
Regardless of how belly fat manifests on your body, exercise is essential for controlling it. You might think the best way to lose body fat is to burn as many calories as you can by doing steady-state aerobic exercise. Not so. According to a new study, if you want to zap body fat, your best bet is to make friends with a pair of dumbbells, barbells or resistance bands.
Resistance Training and Belly Fat
Is resistance training the best form of exercise for controlling belly fat? A study published in the journal Obesity compared weight training and moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise to see what impact each had on waist size and body weight. This study used questionnaires to determine the type of exercise 10,500 healthy middle-aged men did over a 12 year period. Researchers also monitored the men’s weight and waist circumference. The results showed 20 minutes of weight training was more effective than 20 minutes of aerobic activity for preventing abdominal fat gain and increase in waist circumference over time. In this study, resistance training was better for preventing age-related weight gain.
This isn’t the only study to show resistance training is superior to steady-state aerobic exercise for controlling belly fat. One study involving 164 obese women compared aerobics to resistance training for keeping belly fat in check. For two years, one group did 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity daily. The other group did resistance training. At the end of the 2-year study, the group who did aerobic exercise experienced a 21% increase in belly fat while the group who resistance trained only experienced a 7% increase. In this study, resistance training was superior to aerobic exercise for keeping age-related belly fat in check.
Why is Resistance Training Better for Controlling Belly Fat?
As mentioned, one reason women gain abdominal fat after menopause is related to the decline in insulin sensitivity that commonly occurs as a result of aging and hormonal changes. When you resistance train regularly, your muscle cells become more responsive to insulin and insulin sensitivity improves. As a result, your body is less likely to store fat around your abdomen. Plus, over time you build more metabolically active muscle tissue, which improves overall metabolic health.
Intensity for Belly Fat Loss
Regardless of whether you’re weight training or doing cardio, intensity is the key to taming stubborn belly fat. High-intensity interval training triggers the release of fat-burning hormones like growth hormone and testosterone to a greater degree than moderate-intensity workouts. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed participants who worked out at a high intensity banished more belly fat than those who exercised at a more relaxed pace. In the same way, high-intensity resistance training maximally activates fat-burning hormones that help melt away belly fat.
Another problem with doing extra-long periods of moderate-intensity cardio is the effect it has on hormones like cortisol. Cortisol dubbed the “stress hormone,” goes up in response to psychological or physical stress, a drop in blood sugar, excessive calorie restriction or long periods of exercise. It also rises during intense exercise but doesn’t stay up unless you overtrain.
If you do an hour or more of moderate-intensity, steady-state training, a more sustained release of cortisol can interfere with your ability to shed belly fat. Cortisol blocks the effects of growth hormone, a hormone you need for belly fat loss, and contributes to insulin resistance. Over time, chronically high cortisol increases the size of your waistline and makes that annoying muffin top worse. Short and intense are the buzzwords for belly fat loss.
Other Factors That Make It Harder to Lose Belly Fat
Eat a diet rich in processed carbs and sugar and it’ll be almost impossible to prevent age-related gains in belly fat. Processed carbs contribute to insulin spikes. This, in turn, can lead to insulin resistance and an increase in belly fat. The best belly fat diet is one that focuses on whole foods, lean sources of protein and healthy sources of fat, including omega-3s in fatty fish and monounsaturated fats in nuts, avocados, and olive oil.
Just as important for belly fat control is getting enough sleep, not overtraining and keeping stress at bay. All of these factors increase cortisol release and create a hormonal environment that makes it harder to lose belly fat.
The Bottom Line?
High-intensity exercise, especially high-intensity resistance training, is better for controlling belly fat than steady-state aerobic exercise. Plus, resistance training has the added benefit of preventing sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass.
The best way to win the war against belly fat is with a four-pronged approach: resistance training, high-intensity cardio, a whole foods diet, and stress management. Finally, keep doing focused abdominal exercises but don’t count on them to whittle away stubborn waist and belly fat. Focus more on multi-joint exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts that burn more calories and boost the release of hormones that burn belly fat. Just as important, give yourself adequate rest and recovery time to keep stress hormones like cortisol in check.
ME Trainer Academy. “Weight Training and Belly Fat”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 86(3): 568-72. (2007)
Obesity doi: 10.1002/oby.20949. (2014)
Time. “11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat” (May 2014)
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