by Beth Shepard, M.S., ACE-CPT, ACSM-RCEP, Wellcoaches Certified Wellness Coach
One of the most frequently-asked questions heard by fitness professionals is, “how can I lose this fat around my belly?” Nobody wants to be thick around the middle — but abdominal fat can be sneaky, accumulating in subtle ways over the years until you suddenly realize you can pinch way more than an inch.
Risks of Excess Abdominal Fat
2 Types of Abdominal Fat
Subcutaneous fat lies just below the skin, and is usually easy to grasp.
Abdominal or visceral fat lies deep in the abdomen and surrounds internal organs. This type of fat is very damaging and has been associated with many health problems, including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Both types of abdominal fat affect waistline circumference.
Fat rolls aren’t just annoying — they’re hazardous. Studies have shown that for men, increased health risks are associated with every 1-inch (or 2.5 cm) increase in waist circumference:
- Blood pressure increases by 10%
- Blood cholesterol level increases by 8%
- High-density cholesterol (HDL – the good kind) decreases by 15%
- Triglycerides (blood fats) increase by 18%
- Risk for metabolic syndrome increases by 18%
Excess abdominal fat poses many of the same risks for women — and women with excess visceral fat may be at increased risk for breast cancer and the need for gall bladder surgery.
Not everybody can achieve a perfect six-pack. But while body fat distribution patterns are largely influenced by gender and genetics, there’s still plenty you can do to trim your middle — to reduce your health risks and feel better about your physique.
What to Do About It
Achieving and maintaining a trim waistline doesn’t happen by magic — there are no special supplements, spot-reducing exercises, or body-wrap treatments that will shrink your waist in a week. Taking a sensible, sustainable approach is your best bet:
How to Measure Your Waist
From a relaxed standing position, use a flexible tape measure to measure the narrowest part of your torso – usually just above the belly button. Make sure the tape isn’t placed across clothing, and don’t suck it in — you need an accurate baseline measurement to assess your progress.
|Criteria for Waist Circumference in Adults
Bray, G.A. (2004). Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70, 3, 347-349. Referenced in ACE Personal Trainer Manual, Fourth Edition, 2010.
- Know your numbers. Measure your waist circumference (see sidebar) monthly to prevent waistline “creep.” And write it down to track your progress.
- Slim down. Is your weight in a healthy range? Weight loss results in fat loss all over the body, including the abdomen. You can do all kinds of abdominal exercises, but if you’re overweight, chances are good that your abs will remain hidden under a layer of fat until you lose a few pounds — or more.
- Cut calories. Reducing calorie intake is an essential element of weight loss — exercise alone just doesn’t cut it. And if you’re like a lot of people, you probably eat more than you realize. Keep a meal diary for accountability and look for ways to increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — while cutting out junk food and limiting alcohol.
- Get moving. Standing, fidgeting, pacing, and otherwise moving your body — instead of sitting — at every opportunity plays a big role in daily caloric output. Cardiovascular exercise and strength training burn calories while preserving muscle mass as you lose weight — critical for maintaining a healthy metabolic rate. In some studies, higher intensity exercise has been shown to be more effective at reducing abdominal fat than low or moderate-intensity — but it’s not without risks. Check with your health care provider to determine if high-intensity training is right for you.
- Strengthen and stabilize your core muscles. Excess belly fat can overstretch the abdominal muscles, causing them to become weak and atrophied. Because these muscles play a big role in stabilizing the pelvis and low back, weak abs can lead to back pain. Core exercises 2-3 times a week won’t make your spare tire disappear, but they will strengthen the abdominal muscles, improving the appearance of your waistline as you lose weight. And most importantly, they’ll help stabilize your pelvis and low back to help prevent pain and injury.
- Chill out. Believe it or not, studies show that chronic stress creates hormonal conditions that favor an increase in abdominal fat. Learn to cope with stress in healthy ways — talk with a trusted friend or behavioral health professional, let go of aspects of your life that drain your energy, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and so on.
Put these strategies into practice, and you’ll be on your way to a more whittled waistline, reduced health risks, and improved overall well-being.
Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It, Harvard Health Publications
American Council on Exercise, ACE Personal Trainer Manual, Fourth Edition, 2010
Irving BA, Davis CK, Brock DW, Weltman JY, Swift D, Barrett EJ, Gaesser GA, Weltman, Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition, Abstract, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008
University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, UC Healthline: Relax a Little to Reduce Belly Fat
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (2006, August 7). Exercise Important In Reducing Size Of Abdominal Fat Cells. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 18, 2010