Belly fat is dangerous fat—period. The excess, often firm fat around your middle is known as visceral fat. As your waistline expands, individual fat cells inflate, which can lead to lower HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol and higher levels of triglycerides, a bad type of fatty acid in the blood linked to heart disease.
For most women, it’s not until middle age that their midsections become the hot spot for weight gain. As women’s estrogen levels decline with age, their testosterone levels increase, causing them to shift to abdominal weight gain—and the increase in fat is exacerbated with loss of muscle mass and a more sluggish metabolism. But—a big but—that doesn’t mean you should sit idly by and let the fat infiltrate your midsection. Use the following strategies to banish your belly fat for good.
1. Take 30-minute brisk walks
Studies show that the easiest way to shed your spare tire is by logging at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every day. What does “moderate intensity” mean? It’s not a casual stroll. To be effective, you need to huff and puff a bit and break a sweat. And, no, that doesn’t mean you have to sprint like a track star. Brisk walking is fine.
Whether you’re walking, running, or cycling, just make sure that you’re exercising at 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate. The math is easy to calculate. First, find your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 (Example: 220 – 40 = 180). Then multiply your max heart rate by 0.5 (180 x 0.5 = 90). Repeat the calculation, this time multiplying by 0.7 (180 x 0.7 = 126). The two numbers represent your target range in heartbeats per minute. Make sure you’re hitting your max during exercise. Check your rate manually by counting pulse beats on your wrist for 10 seconds and then multiplying by 6.
2. Do HIIT Workouts
Even better than a half-hour run is speed interval training, which involves short, intense bursts of exercise followed by brief “rest” periods of moderate effort. You can do interval-style training with any type of exercise. Walking is a great way to start. In a Canadian study, exercisers who completed 30-minute interval workouts lost three times as much fat over 15 weeks as those who performed easier workouts at a steady pace for 45 minutes.
Another study found that exercisers who did short, intense workouts experienced a 20% drop in visceral fat (aka belly fat) after 3 months. Those who did longer workouts at a more moderate pace saw no such change. You should perform intervals at an intensity where you can speak no more than a few words at a time. This helps you burn more calories while you exercise, but the real benefit comes afterward. The harder your workout, the longer it takes for your body to return to normal. The effect: You keep burning calories long after you leave the gym. Start by supplementing your normal workouts with two or three interval sessions per week.
3. Embrace Resistance Training
Muscle burns calories even when it isn’t engaged in lifting groceries or propelling you up a long set of stairs. It’s more metabolically active than fat is, requiring more calories just to sustain itself on your skeleton. The secret to staying lean as you age is to build muscle through resistance training. We’re not talking about bulging bodybuilder muscles. Just firm, toned, attractive muscle. You can do it by using body-weight-only exercises or exercise bands or by lifting weights. Studies have shown that total-body resistance training actually targets visceral fat. In one study at the University of Alberta, researchrs found that people who performed a high-intensity resistance routine along with their cardio lost more than four times as much belly fat as cardio-only exercisers.
4. Lift and Resist Slowly
When doing resistance training, mix up your workout by adding what’s called a “tempo exercise” to boost the fat-burning benefits of the routine. Tempo exercises, where you lift weights using slow, steady movements, condition your body to burn more fat, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
How to do it: Lower the weight for 3 seconds, then take 3 seconds to press it up, without pausing in between. This can help boost your number of mitochondria—the parts of your cells that use fat to create fuel. The more mitochondria you have, the more belly fat you’ll burn. Make sure to target all of the major muscle groups: arms, legs, shoulders, chest, back, hips, and core using this technique at least once a week.
5. Cut out alcohol
Any alcohol—wine, wine spritzers, fruity cocktails, even straight vodka or whiskey—will inflate your waistline. That’s because alcohol impairs your body’s ability to burn fat. A study conducted by the University of Alberta found alcohol decreases your metabolism by as much as 36%. What’s more, as your body breaks down the alcohol, it starts making fat from a chemical by-product of the process—a double whammy for your belly.
6. Stop getting stressed
When you’re stressed out, your body releases a flood of cortisol, a hormone that encourages your body to store belly fat. The explanation: The fat around your middle has a higher number of cortisol receptors and a greater blood supply, so the hormone can travel there quickly.
7. Drink lots of green tea
The benefits of this beverage just keep adding up—green tea has been shown to help fight cancer, make your skin glow…and shrink belly fat! In a recent study by the University of Alberta, exercisers who downed about four cups of green tea per day for 3 months shed eight times more abdominal fat than those who drank another caffeinated beverage. Green tea is loaded with weight loss-promoting compounds called catechins, which has been shown to accelerate fat burning.
8. Get more sleep
Like stress, a lack of sleep spikes your cortisol levels, causing you to store more abdominal fat. According to Canadian researchers, people who average just 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night increase the likelihood of fat flocking to their stomach.
9. Eat more calcium
Milk isn’t the only dairy that deserves real estate in your fridge. A University of Tennessee study found that overweight people who ate three servings of any type of calcium-rich dairy a day for 6 months lost more belly fat than dieters who consumed less. The calcium may decrease the likelihood that fat will flock to your stomach. Aim for one serving with every meal: a glass of milk with breakfast, a slice of cheese with lunch, and yogurt as an after-dinner treat, for example. Calcium supplements probably won’t have the same effect, since proteins in dairy enhance the fat-burning effect of calcium.
10. Eat more healthy fats
Fat doesn’t make you fat. Some people haven’t gotten the message. Even saturated fats like those in beef and butter can help you lose weight because they are satiating. But monounsaturated fats are the best because they are heart healthy as well as satiating, and they may actually help trim your waistline. A recent study found that insulin-resistant people who ate a diet high in monounsaturated fats had less belly flab than those who loaded up on carbohydrates or saturated fats. Top sources of the healthy fats include salmon, avocado, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, peanut butter, and olive oil.
11. Eliminate Refined Carbs
If you see “enriched flour” in a food’s ingredient list, you’ve fallen victim to refined carbs, which have been stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Switching to whole-grain versions of bread, pasta, rice, and cereal not only provides you with a payload of nutrients, but it can also target harmful belly fat. In a University of Alberta study, dieters who ate whole grains lost twice as much belly fat as those who ate refined carbs.
12. Ditch diet soda
You may think switching to diet soda is a smart move for your waistline. Wrong—the only smart move is cutting out soda entirely. In 2009, University of Texas researchers found that people who drink one diet soda a day have larger waists than those who rarely drink any soda.
13. Don’t be hard on yourself
Obsessing over losing weight is counterproductive! Making yourself stressful does crazy things to your body (see #6) and you will ultimately have a harder time losing weight. So, don’t think too much and overcomplicate things—with weight loss, more often than not, simplicity is best.
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