A pot belly, love handles, a spare tire... call it what you will, but it seems to be the area of the body that we’d all like to tone up. Exercise physiologist Kathleen Alleaume reveals the reasons behind an expanding waistline and how to make the extra baggage go away.
Why is it that some of us never have to worry about our mid-section, but others just can’t shift the weight? Unfortunately, there’s no single answer – there are a number of factors at work, such as age, hormones, genetics, eating habits, physical activity and stress.
What we do know however, is that with age, women tend to gain more fat than men – possibly partly due to hormones. Testosterone predisposes men to accumulating fat around their abdomen, but for postmenopausal women, the female hormone oestrogen (which causes fat to be stored around the hips, butt and thighs) diminishes, causing more fat storage around the abdomen. Of course, whether you’re male or female, the amount of belly fat you have is likely to increase as you get older because our metabolisms slow with age.
Why belly fat is different
Unlike other areas of the body, there are two kinds of fat surrounding your mid-section. Subcutaneous fat (which means, ‘under the skin’) is ‘regular’ fat – the kind you can pinch. The other kind, called visceral fat, actually surrounds the vital organs in your stomach area. It’s this type of fat that pushes the stomach outwards and leads to a pot belly – and it’s this kind that has been linked to a variety of health risks, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers. Therefore, men with a waistline measuring more than 94cm and women with waists measuring more than 80cm are at an increased risk of developing these health complications.
How to lose belly fat
There are several ways you can reduce the amount of fat from around your abdominal area (and it’s not just sit-ups):
Manage your stress
Stress causes the hormone cortisol to be released in the body. Excess amounts of cortisol in your bloodstream increase your likelihood of storing fat around the middle.
Change your eating habits
As we all know, eating too much results in excess weight – and some of this will be stored as belly fat. Get into the habit of reading food labels, replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats, eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, reduce your portion sizes and limit your intake of energy-dense drinks, such as soft drink and alcohol.
Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise will facilitate fat loss all over the body, including your belly. To burn fat, you need to keep your heart rate elevated for a sustained period of time. Aim to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 4 times a week – more if you want to lose belly fat faster. If you’re pressed for time, you can accumulate your 30 minutes (or more) throughout the day with several shorter 10–15 minute sessions of activity. Activities such as brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, rowing, dancing or swimming are all good choices.
Building muscle will actually help accelerate fat loss, especially when combined with regular aerobic exercise. This ‘ab burning circuit’ exercise program (below) is a great way to focus on firming your mid-section.
Your ab-burning circuit
30 minutes cardio
3 x sets bicycle crunch
2 x plank
Do this circuit 4 times a week for results.
* Medical advice is recommended for those who don’t exercise regularly.
How many? 3 x sets of 10 Target muscles: obliques (side abdominals)
Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed into the ground.
Put your hands beside your head, with elbows pressed back.
Bring your knees up to a 45-degree angle and slowly go through a bicycle pedal motion.
As you pedal, touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee.
Breathe evenly throughout the exercise.
Elbow bridge plank
How many? 2 x per circuit Target muscles: core abdominals (muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis and support the lower back).
Lie face down on the ground and place your elbows and forearms underneath your shoulders, forming a right angle.
Using your toes and forearms, prop yourself up to form a ‘bridge’.
Keep your back flat, in a straight line, and do not allow your hips to sag towards the ground.
Hold this position and focus on tightening your abs until you can no longer maintain a flat bridge. Start at 10 seconds, and build up to 1 minute as you get stronger. Don’t forget to breathe!