Belly fat, also known as visceral fat, is problematic for many reasons. It is not only a source of self-esteem issues for many women, it is dangerous. Central adiposity, or belly fat, has been linked a host of health problems, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. This central fat is very close to one’s vital organs—it’s near the liver and kidneys and is in close proximity to the heart. The accumulation of belly fat is not only risky to one’s health, most women consider it unattractive and would do just about anything to get rid of it.
The good news is, belly fat has a higher turnover rate than the very stubborn fat of the hips and thighs. In other words, it can be targeted to be decreased more effectively and efficiently. Although age, genetics, and hormones are related to why, when, and where we deposit fat, there are a few things you can do to battle this “belly-bulge”.
Post-baby, I spent a lot of time researching how to get my pre-pregnancy body back. I have continued that research avidly from a fitness and nutrition standpoint. Here are a few things that will help shrink your waistline, fast. You may be 5 or 50 pounds from your goal, but these tricks are tried and true—backed by current scientific research!
1. When it comes to reducing belly fat—or any body fat, for that matter—there is no substitute for cardio! When I first became certified, over 23 years ago, the recommendations for aerobic activity were a minimum of 20 minutes, 3 times per week. It was do-able for almost anyone and did not scare anyone into giving up completely on their fitness and weight-loss goals. However, the current recommendations are at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity, most days of the week. Although this may be optimal, it is simply not achievable for many of us. There has been a lot of research, especially in the last few years, that shows that just 20 minutes of intense cardiovascular or aerobic activity, 3 times per week, can reap benefits similar to those produced by greater amounts of aerobic activity. That does not mean you should ditch your 6-day-per-week workout regimen if that’s currently what you do. But, if all you can squeeze in are 3 cardio workouts per week, go for it!
Almost anything can be modified to suit your personal fitness level, and study after study proves that HIIT (high intensity interval training) or just high intensity aerobic training are superior for burning fat, leaning out, increasing your ability to burn fat, and raising metabolic rate for up to 72 hours after exercise. The benefits to your cardiovascular system, such as improved VO2 max (ability to use and consume oxygen), decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and improved blood sugar regulation, are all reaped as well. In short, do what you can, not what you feel you should.
Some of my favorite time-crunch cardio workouts include alternating between sprints and walks on the treadmill, each lasting 30 seconds to 2 or 3 minutes, respectively. You can jump rope for 1 minute at a time with a 1-2 minute break between sets, as well. A “hill climb” on the treadmill, intense elliptical, or an intense bike ride count, too! Of course, if you have time for one of our 45-minute cardiovascular classes, great! Either way, you need to do some cardio, at least 3 days per week, to reduce belly fat and to increase your metabolism.
2. Work your larger muscle groups 2 days per week, minimum. Muscle burns about 25% more calories than fat, even at rest. Muscles also use fat as their preferential fuel source, along with glyocen (stored carbs). Fit muscles help control insulin spikes and dips and help your body more efficiently control blood sugar.
Studies have shown that cardiovascular activity, along with resistance training, increases HGH (Human Growth Hormone) and improves insulin sensitivity. Both are keys to winning the fat loss war. HGH specifically targets abdominal fat! In much the same way, excess insulin secretion causes belly fat storage.
You don’t have to be super-technical and devote 6-day splits into your resistance-based routine. For 2 days each week, if it works for your schedule, do resistance training after your cardio. Hit the larger muscle groups of your body to burn more fat and increase your calorie burn. Multi-joint movements such as squats, plies, push-ups, dips, and walking lunges can be done just about anywhere. You can work to fatigue using your own body resistance or using a set of dumbbells or a medicine ball to increase intensity. In the lower body, you will be working the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings; in the upper body, you will work the chest, back, and shoulder muscles. Best of all, whenever you use the muscle intensely, you are activating your smaller, “helper” muscles as well as your core. If you think your biceps and triceps aren’t being engaged during push-ups and body weight dips, try doing 3 sets of 10-30 reps. You will feel the “burn”!
As always, don’t risk injury, and don’t forget your stretch. Once you are cleared by your doctor to exercise, gauge your progress by how you feel. You may need 1 or 2 “off days” from your workouts to recover fully and to allow your muscles to heal and to become toned. Your tendons, ligaments, and other joint tissues need their rest, too! Cut yourself a little slack, and rest as well as work out, for optimal benefits. Burnout is worse than taking a day or two to renew your zest for a fit body.
3. Eat for belly fat loss and overall fat loss but for your health, as well. Specific foods have been proven to reduce fat from the abdominal area, lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol, and reduce risk of arterial plaque buildup and they taste great too! They work synergistically to help your muscles recover, to fuel your body and brain for daily functions, and to satiate you, through a series of hormonal responses and gastrointestinal response.
Like it or not, no food is “free”—all foods have serving sizes and trigger a glycemic response (raising of blood sugar) in your body. You need to eat a moderate serving of carbs, proteins, and fats at each sitting, but you can choose foods that have been directly linked and proven to reduce belly fat. Such foods include whole grain fibrous carbs, certain fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and lean protein. Here are some examples of these foods:
- Whole grain fibrous carbs: whole grain pasta, whole wheat English muffins, and sweet potatoes
- Fruits: blueberries and apples
- Dairy: low- for fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Lean protein: salmon, cod, tuna, chicken or turkey (minus the skin), lean beef
For proper nutrition, you need to mix it up and enjoy a variety of fruits and veggies for full antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral benefits.
Protein has the highest thermal affect of any other food. That means you burn more calories digesting and breaking it down—20-30% more. Whey protein, such as that found in our LiveRite shakes, has been shown to target abdominal fat and to increase satiety better than other protein sources.
Healthy fats, such as avocado, peanut butter (no trans fats), almonds and other nuts, and olive oil are tried-and-true belly-fat burners, each offering a boost to your body’s satiety senses, as well. We need a certain amount of fat to burn fat and to increase the hormones that help our muscles become toned. Go low on healthy fats in your diet, and you may find yourself face first in a plate of your favorite chocolate chip cookies! Do not underestimate your body’s survival mechanisms!
The following are sample mini-meals that hit all the right food groups:
- 1 cup of fat-free milk or light soy milk, with one level scoop of whey protein powder. 1/2 an apple with 1 level tablespoon peanut butter.
- 1 slice warm, multi grain bread a few slices of low-sodium turkey breast. 1 slice of light cheese on top, with about 1/3 avocado and a bit of lettuce for crunch.
- For vegetarians: ¾ cup of legumes, some tomato for iron absorption. 1 teaspoon of olive oil over ½ cup of brown rice or whole wheat pasta
4. Drink green tea! This is probably one of the most important factors you can add to your routine to burn fat from the abs and all over. Green tea catechins (EGCG) and its natural caffeine content increase your metabolism by increasing norepinephrine levels. This fight-or-flight hormone not only increases overall metabolism, it has receptor sites in the abdominal area! I have 2-3 cups of strong green tea per day. I drink mine before noon so that my sleep is not disrupted and use 3 teabags per cup. It is a bit bitter, but it works! Green tea also acts as an antioxidant in the body and has cancer-fighting properties. It has even been linked to improved dental health, better cognitive functioning, and decreased risk of depression. (Yes! It can make you think more clearly and possibly improve your mood!) Drink it iced or hot, with a little sweetener if necessary, but learn to love or at least enjoy green tea. At the very least, tolerate it: your waistline will thank you.
5. Get your sleep. Sleep is essential to good health, optimal metabolism, energy, and muscle reparation and sculpting. Lack of sleep is directly linked to abdominal fat deposits and decreased blood sugar control. In addition, your hunger hormones will be soaring the next day and are almost impossible to defeat. You will be left with seemingly insatiable cravings and will not have the energy to exercise with vigor.
For better sleep, do not engage in rigorous aerobic activity within 2-3 hours of bedtime. This increase in core temperature and rise in fight-or-flight hormones sends a message to your entire system to stay awake in case of impending crisis. Instead, take a yoga class at one of our locations; try deep breathing exercises, and reduce caffeine intake later in the day. Turn off technological devices that may stimulate your senses, such as the computer. Even too much TV right before bed can overstimulate your senses. Curl up with a good book and some chamomile tea instead. Allow yourself to wind down before you hit the hay. Aim for 6-8 hours of collective sleep per 24 hour period. If you must catch a cat nap, go ahead. Rest when you need to, and you will feel rejuvenated and energized for it!
(For more on why sleep is important, read this Trainer Tip.)
6. Drink at least 8-11 glasses of ice gold water per day, more during intense activity. Ice cold water is essential for all-over fat loss and for belly fat loss. It releases norepenphrine, a metabolism-raising hormone, with receptor sites in the abdominal region, as previously noted. Two cups of very cold water ups metabolism by 30% for a full hour and a half after consumption! Further, water of any temperature prevents overeating. A 12-week study showed that people who consumed water before meals lost 5 more pounds than those who didn’t! Calorie-free coffee, tea, or any other beverage does not count toward your daily water intake total. Carry a mini-cooler in your car with water and a couple of healthful snacks or small meals; with this preparation, you will reap benefits!
7. Work your abs (abdominals) and surrounding muscles 3 days per week. This does not have to be an hour-long workout. A few simple exercises performed slowly, safely, and with proper form will do the trick. Crunches, reverse crunches, oblique crunches, and bicycle crunches are some of the best exercises you can do for your abs. Planks and side planks will target your deeper core muscles of the back and waistline area. Do 3 sets of 15-25; even 2 sets of 50 will work. Use a stability ball to increase stabilizer muscle activation, and put a medicine ball or free weight on your chest to increase intensity. If you are unsure of form, ask one of our trainers or take a Total Body Workout class. All aspects of form and breathing techniques will be covered in the class. And as always, our certified personal trainers and class instructors are here to help you—so never be afraid to ask for help!
International Journal Clinical Practice, 2010
International Journal of Sport Nutritional and Exercise Metabolism, 2010
Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2009
Obesity Reviews, 2009
American Journal of Physiology, 2007
Sports Medicine, 2008
American Journal Clinical Nutrition, 2007
Nutrition Research, 2011
Trainer Tip by Sandra Ferrerio, certified LiveRite weight loss coach, trainer, and class instructor at Lucille Roberts in Yonkers. Read her full bio here.