Belly fat is maligned for its way of tampering with any outfit that doesn’t involve a muumuu, but really there’s something way worse about the stuff: When white fat expands in your abdomen, nestling deep among your organs, it sets you up for some serious health trouble.
We now know that this type of fat, called visceral fat, is metabolically active and churns out stress hormones like cortisol and inflammatory substances called cytokines that affect you body’s production of insulin. The result is worse than just being generally overweight; you’re looking at increased risks of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and even dementia.
Unfortunately, some women are just more prone to carrying weight in their middle instead of their hips and thighs. Sometimes, it’s genetics—maybe your mother was more apple-shaped. Belly fat can also increase around menopause, or for women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Even certain lifestyle habits, from lack of sleep to stress, can make your belly grow. To lose belly fat, talking with a doctor about what other factors may be affecting your weight gain can be a good place to start. From there, you can craft a belly fat busting routine.
The problem? You can’t spot reduce fat.
But don’t lose hope just yet. You can still incorporate strategies that help you lose total body fat, which will benefit your belly. At the end of the day, nothing sheds belly fat like diet, exercise, and everyday changes to your lifestyle. The slimmer stomach of your dreams is always within reach, but it takes time and dedication. Commit to these habits, and you’ll start dropping pounds before you know it.
Burn it off with high-intensity cardio
There’s one thing to like about visceral fat: It yields fairly easily to aerobic exercise. Vaporizing calories via running, biking, swimming—anything that gets your heart rate up—is an effective way to whittle your middle. In fact, one 2011 study from Duke University Medical Center, published in the American Journal of Physiology, found the sweet spot: Jogging the equivalent of 12 miles a week was even more effective in reducing visceral fat than resistance training three times per week. However, both types of exercise were beneficial when it came to belly fat, the researchers say. (Don’t have time to hit the gym? Try these fun at-home cardio workouts if you’re in a pinch.)
Work up a sweat with weights
Sure, high-intensity cardio can help you torch calories, but ideally, you’ll also need to pump some iron to build metabolism-boosting muscle. That’s because strength training is one of the few activities you can do to spike the amount of calories you burn, even after you’re done with your workout. Case in point: one 2012 review of research found that while completing a 20-minute resistance training circuit may help you burn 200 calories, your body’s resting metabolic rate stays elevated for the next hour, helping you burn an additional 50 calories. Plus, when you lose weight, you lose some muscle with it, so building and maintaining that lean mass will help you achieve a more toned look.
Again, you can’t spot reduce fat, but you can add full-body circuits to your exercise routine to train problem areas and maximize fat loss all over, which will ultimately help you achieve a leaner core. Don’t know where to start? Check out the six best strength training exercises for beginners.
Take a daily walk
Dedicating a few days a week to a challenging workout is important, but the movement shouldn’t stop there. Think about it: exercising for one hour of your day really isn’t going to make up for the eight hours you spend sitting at your desk at work, especially if fat loss is your end game.
One easy way to sneak in more movement? Go for a daily walk. One small study published in The Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry found that obese women who did a walking program for 50 to 70 minutes three days per week for 12 weeks significantly slashed their visceral fat compared to a sedentary control group.
“It seems so simple, but 45 to 60 minutes of brisk walking every day can do wonders for your metabolism,” Sahmura Gonzalez, a master trainer at Crunch Fitness in New York City, recently told Prevention. “Plus, it ensures that you don’t over-train, which can lead to an over-production of cortisol—a stress hormone that’s been shown to contribute to belly fat.”
Eat protein like you mean it
You’re always told that chicken and Greek yogurt and eggs are amazing because they’re high in protein—but why exactly is that such a big deal? For one, your body relies on protein (since its rich in essential amino acids) to help repair the tiny tears caused by strength training in your muscle tissues, so they can grow bigger and stronger.
What’s more, your body digests protein more slowly than carbs, so it keeps you feeling fuller longer and zaps your need to needlessly snack. “During weight loss, you want more protein—to prevent hunger, enhance satiety, and minimize muscle loss, as long as there’s some degree of physical activity,” Tom Rifai, MD, regional medical director of metabolic health and weight management for the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit told Prevention.
Science backs these ideas up when it comes shedding belly fat: In one study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers had overweight men and women follow a high-protein diet (30 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat) or a high-carb diet (15 percent protein, 55 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat). After one year of weight loss and maintenance, they found that the high-protein group experienced a 21 percent greater weight loss and 27 percent greater body fat loss on average than the high-carb group.
One easy way to up your protein intake is to add organic protein powder to your smoothies, meals, or snacks that are otherwise low in the muscle-building nutrient. Make sure you keep your fridge stocked with high protein foods—like cottage cheese, fish, and lentils—too.