You exercise and watch what you eat but you can’t seem to shed those stubborn rolls of fat around the middle. You’re not alone. Tummy fat, especially deep-seated tummy fat known as visceral fat, becomes more problematic with age. Visceral fat is a deeper type of belly fat that’s less “pinchable” but more dangerous from a health standpoint. Higher levels of visceral fat are linked with health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer. Exercise helps but even if you work out most days of the week, you might still be fighting a battle with belly fat. Why is belly fat so hard to vanquish?
You might think all fat cells are the same, but you actually have two different kinds of receptors on fat cells called alpha and beta cells. The fat in certain areas of your body has a higher ratio of one type or the other. Think of alpha receptors as the “bad guys” in terms of body composition. When they’re concentrated in an area of your body, they make it harder to shed body fat in that region. In contrast, areas of your body that have a higher concentration of beta receptors can burn stored fat more easily.
Alpha receptors cluster in areas where there’s “stubborn” body fat, and for women over the age of 50, that’s often the waist and tummy. Men tend to have a higher ratio of alpha to beta receptors in the abdominal region as well. That’s why men that don’t exercise often develop a prominent belly, although they may not look overweight in other areas.
Women after the age of 50 have more alpha receptors in their tummy region, but younger women tend to have them in the hip and thigh areas, making it harder to shed fat in these regions. That’s why younger women complain about their hips and thighs, but older women are more concerned about the growing bands of belly fat around the middle. However, the ratio of alpha to beta cells in different areas of the body are also influenced by genetics. You may have noticed that a tendency towards a certain body composition runs in families. That’s partially due to an inherited tendency to have a higher ratio of alpha to beta receptors in certain areas.
The Role of Exercise In Reducing Belly Fat
If you exercise regularly and still can’t shed tummy fat, ramp up the intensity of your workouts. Intense exercise leads to the greater release of catecholamines, like adrenaline, and it’s catecholamines that bind to the beta receptors on fat cells to jumpstart fat burning. So, a big burst of catecholamines like you get during a high-intensity interval workout stimulates those receptors to break down fat. So, exercise, particularly vigorous exercise, is an ally in the fight against belly fat. High-intensity resistance training is too.
The Role of Insulin and How it Affects Belly Fat
Insulin is the other enemy of stubborn belly fat, especially where there’s a high ratio of alpha to beta receptors. When circulating insulin levels are high, it blocks fat burning and makes it almost impossible to lose stubborn body fat. Having too much body fat itself can create insulin resistance and increase insulin, creating a vicious cycle that makes it frustratingly difficult to get leaner around the tummy. Losing weight helps reduce insulin and its choking hold on fat loss – but the high insulin makes it hard to do that!
One way to lower circulating insulin is to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet. Not all carbs are bad – you need healthy, fiber-rich carbs from sources like fruits and vegetables. It’s the processed ones that force your pancreas to pump out more insulin. Break away from sweet treats and foods made with white flour.
Exercise also helps to improve insulin sensitivity, with weight training and aerobic exercise both offering benefits. If you’re trying to shed stubborn belly fat, you should be doing both. In fact, when researchers looked at data from over 10,000 men over the age of 40, they found those who did twenty minutes of weight training experienced less of an increase in abdominal fat over time than those who did 20 minutes of aerobic training daily.
Also, anything that elevates cortisol will make it harder to vanquish resistant belly fat and that includes not getting enough sleep and letting stress get out of hand. Chronically elevated cortisol, for whatever reason, triggers an elevation in insulin as insulin sensitivity declines in conjunction with increased cortisol. This makes it even harder to burn belly fat!
What about exercise? Exercise, within reason, can lower cortisol and help relieve stress, but overtraining and excessive calorie restriction, particularly if you’re exercising a lot, raises your baseline cortisol level and make it harder to lose body fat, among other things. In fact, when your cortisol is high, fat tends to redistribute from other areas of the body, like the hips and thighs, to the belly. So, stress, both mental and physical, can increase stubborn belly fat.
Elevations in cortisol, along with a decline in insulin sensitivity, becomes more common after menopause. It’s one reason so many women have problems losing weight and experience an expanding waistline. One of the most important things you can do to preserve your waistline and your health is to improve how your cells respond to insulin, in other words, increase insulin sensitivity. As mentioned, the ways to do that are to:
· Lose weight (although difficult when you’re already insulin resistant)
· Exercise, including weight training and high-intensity training, IN MODERATION. Don’t overtrain
· Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates. Make the carbs you eat healthy, fiber-rich ones. A Mediterranean diet is a good plan to follow
· Get at least 7 hours of sleep nightly
· Manage stress using a method that works for you. Meditation and yoga are two effective stress reduction exercises.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, stubborn belly fat becomes even more stubborn after menopause and the stubborn areas often switch from the hips and thighs to the waistline and tummy. Yet, lifestyle and dietary strategies can help you avoid an expanding waistline. Take advantage of that!
Harvard Health Letter 2015 Mar; Vol. 40 (5), pp. 8.
Mol Med. 2002 Feb;8(2):88-94.
International Journal of Obesity (2001) 25, 1604–1608 (2001) doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0801810.
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