Not all body fat is equal from a health standpoint. The flabby fat that deposits around your thighs and buttocks is less harmful to your health than fat that builds up in your abdominal cavity and increases the size of your waistline. In fact, research shows that deep belly fat, called visceral fat, boosts the risk of life-shortening health problems such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. These are health problems we want to avoid, and it starts with reducing deep belly fat!
Whether you carry more tummy fat than you should also depends on age. Before midlife, women mostly store fat around the thighs and buttocks when they gain weight, but after menopause fat storage shifts to the tummy and waistline. Hormones play a role in where you store fat too, and it’s not just estrogen and progesterone that wreak havoc with your belly. Insulin sensitivity drops after menopause and the stress hormone cortisol rises. These hormonal shifts affect where your body stores fat. Research shows that cortisol transfers triglycerides (fats) from subcutaneous storage to visceral fat cells, thereby increasing the amount of visceral fat you carry around your waist and deep in your belly.
How do you know if you have too much visceral fat? The most reliable way would be with an imaging study, like an MRI or CT scan. However, that’s an expensive test and one that exposes you to radiation. Is there an alternative way to monitor visceral fat? The tape measure is a less high-tech option for finding out if you have visceral fat overload. Ideally, your waistline should be less than half of your height. For example, if you’re 66 inches in height, your waist size should be no larger than 33 inches.
Health care professionals point out that a waist size of 35 inches or greater is a red flag for increased cardiovascular risk in women. One small thing we all can do to monitor our health is to measure our waist size every month. Even if you’re of normal weight, you can still have an unhealthy amount of visceral belly fat.
Aerobic Exercise and Visceral Fat
One lifestyle factor that can lower visceral fat is exercise. Since aerobic exercise is a calorie burner, you might wonder how effective it is for trimming visceral fat. Most studies show that aerobic exercise helps lower visceral fat stores. In fact, a meta-analysis of 16 studies, including 9 randomized controlled trials, found that aerobic exercise at an intensity of at least 10 METS was effective for reducing deep belly fat. This would correspond to brisk walking or light jogging. The analysis also pointed out that visceral fat can drop with aerobic exercise even if you don’t lose weight. The study also found that longer duration and higher volume aerobic exercise was most effective for trimming deep belly fat.
What about high-intensity exercise? High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is popular these days and many people do this type of training to lose weight and tummy fat. One study compared 12 weeks of high-intensity interval training with moderate-intensity exercise in overweight and obese individuals. The two programs were equal in terms of the total amount of work, although the HIIT training was shorter because of the more vigorous nature of the workout.
The results? At the end of 12 weeks, both groups lost an equivalent amount of body fat and visceral fat (a 10% reduction), but the high-intensity group did shorter workouts relative to the moderate-intensity group. In fact, the study found that training volume is essential for shedding body fat with moderate-intensity aerobics. You can’t do a short aerobic workout at a moderate intensity and expect a significant loss of visceral fat.
The good news? Both forms of exercise help cut visceral fat, but the moderate-intensity program requires more total minutes of exercise to get the same results. It comes down to whether you want to work harder and shorter or less hard longer. Studies suggest that moderate-intensity aerobic workouts of at least 45 minutes per session are effective for trimming visceral fat. But you can get similar results and metabolic adaptations with shorter HIIT workouts. For many people, the shorter duration workouts are appealing, especially if you’re pressed for time!
Nutrition Counts Too
Aerobic exercise and strength training can both help you control visceral fat, but if you ignore the nutritional component, that belly fat won’t budge! Are there nutritional strategies you can tap into? Here are some effective approaches. Replace the starchy and ultra-processed carbohydrates in your diet with fiber-rich vegetables. Add more protein to your diet for satiety and replace some saturated fats in your diet with monounsaturated fats from sources like nuts and olive oil. Some studies also suggest that long-chain omega-3s from fatty fish can reduce visceral fat.
The Bottom Line
Aerobic exercise can help you shed visceral fat, the kind that’s most harmful to your health. Both moderate-intensity and high-intensity workouts are effective, but you’ll need a greater time commitment if you choose moderate-intensity exercise. You can also do moderate-intensity exercise on some days and HIIT training on others. But don’t do high-intensity training more than twice per week as you need more recovery time after vigorous workouts. Don’t forget about resistance training. In fact, a Spanish study showed a combination of diet and strength training reduced visceral fat by almost 10%. So, you’ll make the greatest strides if you combine aerobic exercise with good nutrition too.
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