Belly fat – it’s one of the toughest types of fat to control. Women begin to store more fat around their belly and waistline after menopause when hormonal changes take place and insulin sensitivity begins to decline. Visceral fat also becomes more of a problem during late middle age.
Visceral fat is a deep form of abdominal fat that builds up around internal organs and the one most dangerous from a health standpoint. Visceral fat is linked with insulin resistance and an increased risk for heart disease, type 2-diabetes and, possibly, some forms of cancer. Plus, visceral fat releases free fatty acids that research shows causes an inflammatory response. As you may know, low-grade, chronic inflammation is linked with chronic health problems.
Some people still believe belly fat can be tamed into submission by doing hundreds of abdominal crunches, sit-ups, leg raises and other types of focused abdominal exercises. Unfortunately, these exercises only strengthen and define the abdominal muscles. They do nothing to burn away the stubborn layer of abdominal fat that covers them.
If abdominal exercises are all you do to target belly fat, you’ll be disappointed with the results. So what should be your strategy to lose belly fat? Let’s look at two types of exercise that help you control belly fat.
High-Intensity Interval Training
Exercises that burn fat are best for uncovering “shy” abdominal muscles hiding under a layer of subcutaneous fat. Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise where you don’t vary the intensity burns calories and fat, but a number of studies show high-intensity exercise targets belly fat better. Why might this be?
High-intensity exercise taps into anaerobic pathways for energy production. Anaerobic pathways are those that don’t require oxygen. When your body is forced to use non-oxygen pathways to produce ATP, it incurs an “oxygen debt.” This oxygen debt has to be repaid during recovery. That’s why you breathe harder after a high-intensity interval. This increased energy expenditure is referred to as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) or the “afterburn.”
In essence, your body has to work harder and expend more energy when you work out at high intensity even during the recovery period. As a result, your metabolism is elevated for a longer period after a high-intensity interval workout. This metabolic increase enhances belly fat loss. Steady-state aerobic exercise gives little or no after-burn.
High-intensity exercise also maximizes the release of hormones that burn fat including epinephrine, norepinephrine and growth hormone. Research shows high-intensity exercise “trains” your body to use more fat as a fuel source. In one study, women who did interval training experienced a 36% increase in fat use as a fuel during training. Not bad, huh?
Even in cases where high-intensity interval training burns fewer calories than moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, due to the shorter duration, high-intensity exercise appears to be better for belly fat loss. The uptick in metabolism during recovery and the hormonal response more than compensates for the reduced calorie burn during the exercise session itself. If you’re trying to lose belly fat, do a few sessions of high-intensity interval training each week.
Strength training to burn belly fat? Yes! Strength training does more than build stronger quads and more defined biceps. It activates hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that vanquish belly fat. The key is to use a heavy resistance you can lift no more than 6 to 12 times and focus on compound exercises. Also, focus on exercises that target large muscle groups in your lower body.
Compound exercises are those that work more than one muscle group at a time such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, chest presses and pull-ups. Isolation exercises that work a single muscle group like biceps curls and triceps extensions are fine for strengthening your arms but they don’t create enough of a metabolic effect to burn belly fat.
To maximize belly fat loss, minimize rest periods to maximize fat burning and do a high volume, 3 to 4 sets of each exercise.
Other Tips to Reduce Belly Fat
No article about belly fat would be complete without mentioning nutrition. It may sound trite, but abs really are made in the kitchen, at least to some degree. Nutrition can make or break you. Even the best exercise program will under-perform if you don’t watch your diet.
What dietary changes do you need to make to enhance your abs? Avoid processed carbs and stick with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of whole grains. Don’t undo your hard work by drinking sweetened beverages and including sugar in your diet.
Focus on healthy fat sources like monounsaturated fats in nuts, olive oil, and avocados. There’s some evidence that monounsaturated fats help in the battle to control belly fat. Lean sources of protein help you feel full and reduce fluctuations in blood pressure that lead to hunger.
Get enough sleep! Inadequate sleep can raise your cortisol level. Cortisol is a stress hormone that contributes to belly fat. Any kind of stress – mental stress and excessive calorie restriction – can raise your cortisol level and make it harder to lose belly fat. Aggressive calorie restriction isn’t healthy and it’s not the key to belly fat loss. Just as importantly, it’s not sustainable.
Make sure you’re getting enough natural vitamin D. Some research has linked low vitamin D with visceral abdominal fat and obesity. Vitamin D also increases calcium absorption. When your calcium levels fall, you produce more of a hormone that promotes fat storage.
The Bottom Line?
High-intensity intervals and strength-training with a focus on compound exercises and large muscle groups are your best bet when it comes to losing belly fat. Focused abdominal exercises help build definition, but won’t help you shed fat.
“Is Aerobic or Anaerobic Training Best for Getting Rid of Belly Fat?” Poloquin
Medscape Family Medicine. “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition”
Obesity (Silver Spring). Mar 2010; 18(3): 604-610.
Diabetes Care. 2007 Jul;30(7):1717-23. Epub 2007 Mar 23.
Poliquin Group. “Take Vitamin D to Lose Belly Fat”
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