“I feel like I need to lose the fat right here!”
As a dietitian and trainer, I’ve met people time and time again who have this same lamentation about their midsection. Why does fat seem to gravitate there so easily? What is it about our middles that makes that fat so stubborn and hard to lose? And how can we see some changes? Read on.
Belly Fat Anatomy
The fat in our midsection is made up of both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
Subcutaneous is the fat you can see and pinch. For those who are working hard to try to tone their core with crunches and planks, this fat is what covers up the ab muscles underneath.
This type of fat is typically used by the body to store excess energy and calories. While some may consider it unsightly, it’s a bit more of an aesthetic issue relative to its belly-fat cousin, visceral fat.
Visceral fat is found around your internal organs, deeper within your body. It’s metabolically active, but not in the way we would hope. It’s strongly linked to chronic inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia.
When someone has extreme amounts of visceral fat, it can expand the midsection so much that it actually feels hard (albeit round) to the touch. However, take note: You don’t have to be carrying excess pounds for visceral fat to be an issue. Someone of “normal” weight with an apple shape may also be at high risk from the negative health effects of this deep visceral fat.
Why Belly Fat Happens
There are multiple factors at play when it comes to the body’s propensity to store belly fat, whether that be visceral or subcutaneous. Here are the ones we tend to see most often:
An excess of calories.
Consuming too many calories is more complex than simply “eating too much,” although that certainly can be a standalone problem itself.
Our Western food environment is set up in a way that makes naturally controlling calories extremely difficult. We’re positioned to be more sedentary (e.g., an abundance of desk jobs and commuting to work via driving instead of walking) and are surrounded by highly processed, hyper-palatable, nutrient-poor convenience foods.
Unless you’re purposefully prioritizing a real-food diet made up of colorful vegetables and fruit, plenty of meat, fish, eggs, and other quality protein sources, healthy fat such as nuts, seeds, and avocado, and complex carbohydrates like root veggies and beans, it’s likely you’re overconsuming calories, even if you’re not eating a high volume of foods.
Too much dietary fructose.
Most of us have heard of high-fructose corn syrup, but even if you’re avoiding that specific ingredient, this type of simple sugar may still be a concern. The intake of fructose has skyrocketed as the result of widespread production of refined sugar and refined sugar products.
Although fructose is sometimes referred to as “fruit sugar” — since it’s found in fruit — whole fruit is rarely the issue. The most significant sources of fructose in our food supply come from sweetened beverages, such as soda pop, juices (even 100 percent fruit juice), and energy drinks. It’s also found in agave, honey, candy, and most processed baked goods.
Half of the molecular structure of table sugar is fructose, so avoiding added sugars — no matter what name they’re called by — is key.
Note: Added sugars are a sneaky, pervasive, and unfortunate staple in our food supply, which is part of the reason we recommend scrutinizing the ingredient list of foods you’re regularly eating. You can read more and learn how to eat less sugar (even if you don’t think you currently eat a lot of it) here: “Simple Ways to Eat Less Sugar.”
An imbalance of hormones.
The propensity to store fat in the midsection can be enhanced with certain hormonal patterns. In men, low testosterone has been shown to correlate with belly fat storage — and it’s been estimated that 40 percent of men over the age of 45 wrestle with low levels.
During menopause, women often report struggling with a noticeable and unwanted change in how their body stores fat, with more accumulating at the waistline than ever before. This is due to the hormonal cascade of rapidly declining estrogen (along with falling of the estrogen-binding protein called SHBG) and the relative increase in certain characteristically male hormones. As a result, there’s a redistribution of fat to the middle region, along with the associated cardiovascular risk factors.
In men and women, increases in both insulin (a blood-sugar regulating hormone) and cortisol (the primary stress hormone) are strongly linked to belly fat accumulation as well.
What You Can Do
Although there are several factors involved, losing belly fat is not a hopeless battle. There are tangible lifestyle habits you can implement to help with both subcutaneous and visceral body-fat losses.
Here’s your six-step plan:
1. Focus on foods you ought to be eating to edge out the foods that are better to avoid.
With my clients, I’ve seen the most success in long-term, transformative nutrition changes from having an additive mindset versus a restrictive one. Instead of focusing on everything that “should” be given up, aim first to make sure you’re eating what is best for your metabolism.
For most people, this serves as a great starting point:
- Drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. This not only hydrates, detoxifies, and boosts energy, but it also helps you naturally limit your intake of soda pop, sweetened coffee drinks, and other sugary beverages.
- Consume 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight throughout your day’s meals and snacks. Getting enough protein in naturally helps stabilize blood sugar and insulin, as well as helps kill cravings for processed foods since it’s so filling.
- Target 5 to 7 cups (or more) of non-starchy vegetables per day. This provides an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. It also delivers hunger-busting fiber that helps balance your hormones and regulate your appetite.
It might sound simple, but focusing on doing these things can help you naturally limit trans fats, inflammatory processed foods, and added sugars — all things worth giving up for a healthier waistline and better metabolic health. Plus, these habits also help manage blood sugar and insulin levels, which are both essential to see results.
2. Detox from social media and late-night TV.
Although it’s mission-critical for losing belly fat (see cortisol note above), most people under-prioritize stress management and sleep since they don’t inherently feel productive. However, since the hormonal stress response and sleep go hand-in-hand, it’s sometimes more helpful to focus on some specific things to support both areas that can be implemented daily.
Have you ever felt uplifted or fulfilled after scrolling your social media feed? Chances are that you have not — and if you have, I’d guess those occasions are rare. For my clients, limiting social media exposure is one of the most powerful tools for reducing added stress.
Additionally, exposure to blue light from screens — such as on your phone or from the TV — is one of the most insidious thieves of a good night’s sleep. It disrupts our circadian rhythm and by doing so robs us of our deep, restorative, and uninterrupted rest.
For more ideas for how to keep stress levels in check, see: “Stress Management for Busy People.”
3. Lift regularly — and with good form.
Effective strength training often involves more than just body weight: it takes added resistance from weights, bands, kettlebells, and other objects to add continued challenge.
A well-designed strength program with progressive overload (an exercise physiology term referring to a formulaic increase in resistance over time designed to strengthen muscles) done regularly (three times per week or more) is one of the most transformative things you can do for your metabolism and belly fat. Simply put, more muscle mass equals more calorie burn — and better-controlled blood sugar, which is essential to a healthy midsection.
Additionally, most fitness professionals work hard to help clients undo any forward tilting of the hips (called anterior pelvic tilt) that can posturally protrude the belly region. This often happens as a result of sitting all day with a weak core.
To help with this, exercise programming often prioritizes the posterior chain or backside, which include our glutes, lower back, and hamstrings, along with stretching hip flexors regularly. Perfect form is a top priority with every lift for efficacy, safety, and strengthening of the core. (Yes, it is possible to strengthen your abdominals with well-done compound lifts, such as deadlifts.)
For a fully optimized exercise program to help flatten the midsection, pair your metabolism-boosting strength training and lifting with regular Pilates sessions. This can help to combat postural imbalances from your day-to-day life and foster a mind-body connection to help ensure you’re using the right muscles when you’re training.
4. Balance out your cardio.
While it’s common knowledge that light, never-break-a-sweat cardio alone is probably ineffective at blasting belly fat, most are surprised to learn that attacking your aerobic training with all-out intensity most of the time is unlikely to help either.
When it comes to cardio, the secret is balance: You want to spend about 80 percent of your weekly cardio time at intensities that feel easy and fairly comfortable. Spend the other 20 percent of your time interval training to feel winded and push your max for short bursts.
The lower-intensity training sends an effective message to your metabolism that your lifestyle relies on regular, slower-paced activity, which sends a signal to burn fat. The pushes into higher intensities help your overall fitness level and cardiovascular health, in addition to providing some benefit for your blood sugar and insulin control.
5. Test your hormones.
In combination with the other steps listed here, pinpointing your hormones — and taking steps to address imbalances — can be a game changer for addressing belly fat.
We’re big believers in annual, comprehensive lab testing for a reason: Most of us, even when we’re medically fine, have underlying imbalances that are behind pesky things we’re trying to avoid — including belly fat and bloating.
There’s a difference between being within the medical reference range for hormones including testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and insulin (all belly-fat culprits) and being in the optimal range. Taking targeted steps to shift each of these into optimal can not only help lay the foundation to more effectively shed belly fat, but they can give you a feeling of better overall vitality and health, too.
6. Give it time.
I know I won’t make any friends with this piece of advice, but unfortunately, there’s no 10-day plan to blast away excess visceral fat and flatten the midsection. But since losing belly fat can be transformative for your well-being, it’s something to start working on today.
Noticeable change comes with small habits done consistently over time. There’s no real, lasting way to speed that up, but know that your path to a healthier you is ready when you are, and it can start with the steps outlined above.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
The 5-Sequence Family Yoga Workout
Yoga is a practice where you can practice mindfulness, learn to tune into your breath, find challenge, and increase your flexibility and fitness — all of which are important to anyone at any age. And whether you’re five or 65, there are yoga exercises that are suitable for all ages and abilities.
Gather the whole family and try these five yoga sequences; you can perform them individually or back to back if you’re seeking a longer practice.
Sun Salutation A
This sequence is designed to get the body flowing and is a great way to begin your yoga practice. Feel your breath encouraging you to move: Inhales help to open and give you length, while exhales inspire bending and folding, and help to ground you down.
- Inhale: Standing tall, reach your arms up to the sky.
- Exhale: Lean your upper body to the right side, reaching your left arm to the right. Use your right hand to grab your left wrist overhead.
- Inhale: Reach your arms overhead while returning back to center standing.
- Exhale: Lean your upper body to the left side, reaching your right arm to the left. Use your left hand to grab your right wrist overhead.
- Inhale: Come through to stand tall at center, reach your arms overhead, and lift your heels off the ground for a moment of balancing.
- Exhale: Return your heels to the ground and fold forward, hinging from the hips. Take a breath or two here before repeating the entire sequence one or two more times.
Sun Salutation B
This sequence helps warm up the lower half of your body. Continue to use your breath as a guide to move your body.
- Begin in downward-facing dog: Start on all fours. Plant your hands out in front of you, about shoulder-width apart. Pike your hips up to the ceiling, forming an upside-down V-shape; press your heels toward the floor.
- Inhale into crescent lunge: Step your right foot between your hands to move into a high lunge and reach your arms high.
- Exhale into prayer twist: Bring your palms together and twist to your right side, toward your bent leg; lower your left elbow toward the outside of your right knee. Take a breath or two before returning to center.
- Inhale into sky archer: Unwind from your twist and begin to straighten your legs, pivoting to face the long edge of your space. Open your body into a big “X” shape stretching your arms and legs out to the sides. Let your left hand grab your right wrist overhead and lean backward, feeling a side-body stretch.
- Exhale: Slowly move back to center and bend forward, planting your hands in front of your feet. Step back to high plank, then lower to the bottom position of a pushup.
- Inhale into upward-facing dog: Straighten your arms while pulling your chest up to the ceiling and into a backbend.
- Exhale: Return to downward-facing dog.
- Repeat on the left side.
Balancing is a fundamental aspect of any movement yogis perform. It helps to build strength, stability, and core support — plus, it’s fun! These two balancing shapes will help you get started with this aspect of your practice.
- Tree pose:
- Stand firmly on your right foot and begin to glide the bottom of your left foot on the inside of your right leg, bending your knee outward. Your left foot can plant anywhere from your ankle to all the way up to the top of your thigh. Avoid pressing your foot directly into your knee, as this can be jarring and uncomfortable. Opening your left knee, you’ll feel a stretch in your hips.
- Reach your hands up high and play with your balance. You could sway your arms side-to-side, or even try to lift your right heel off the ground if it feels comfortable.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Half-moon pose:
- From standing, bring your right leg forward and bend into a lunge. Reach your right hand forward, in front of your right foot. Slowly rise to straighten your right leg, keeping your right hand on the ground, while also lifting your left leg up and flexing your left foot. Reach your left arm up to the sky. Let it feel as though you are staking your shoulders, hips, and even your lungs as you expand your body in every direction. Hold for 5-10 big breaths. Bring your feet together, stand up tall, and repeat on the other side.
Yin is the portion of a yoga workout where you take time to stretch your body. This is important because it assists in targeting the deep, connective tissues between the muscles and fascia throughout the body. It also helps us regulate the body's flow of energy.
- Inhale: Reach your arms overhead, gaze follows your fingertips.
- Exhale: Fold forward, hugging your body in towards your legs.
- Inhale: Bring your hands to your shins and lift your body halfway, having your torso parallel to the floor.
- Exhale: Plant your hands and step your feet to the back of your space, bending your elbows into a pushup.
- Inhale: Roll to the tops of your feet, straighten your arms, and feel a back bend in your torso (upward-facing dog).
- Exhale: Lift your hips and drop your heels, creating an inverted “V” with your body (downward-facing dog).
- Hold for as many breaths that feel good to you.
When you feel ready:
- Inhale: From downward-facing dog, look forward between your hands, adding a slight bend to your knees.
- Exhale: Walk or jump your feet to the middle of your mat/space and take a seat on the floor.
- Inhale: Bring the soles of your feet together, allowing your bent knees to open wide. Bring your hands to your ankles or shins and sit up tall.
- Exhale: Fold forward over your feet. Let yourself be nice and passive, feeling a stretch in your glutes, thighs, and lower back. Hold for at least 10 breaths.
- Inhale: Sit up tall and extend your legs forward.
Exhale: Lie all the way on your back, taking up as much space as feels good in your body.
Savasana symbolizes the end of your practice and helps the body reset while your previous movement efforts sink into your body.
- Lie on your back, taking up as much space as you would like.
- Close your eyes, giving way to gravity, and feeling the support of the floor beneath you.
- Notice the natural rise and fall of your breath.
- When you feel ready, start to deepen your breathing, and invite some easy, gentle movement into your body.
- Lift yourself up into a seated position, bringing your hands to your heart.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
6 Tips to Stay Fit as a Gamer
You can love to game and love to train. YouTube and Twitch content creator and pro natural bodybuilder Jackson “Bajheera" Bliton is here to show you what it takes to stay fit as a gamer.
Flexibility vs. Mobility in Fitness: Why Not Both?
When you hear the word stretch, you might think immediately about flexibility (or perhaps your lack thereof). Flexibility was always the term used for enhancing limited movement, until the word mobility arrived and took the fitness industry by storm.
As a NIFS Health Fitness Instructor for five years now, I’ve spent plenty of time in and around the fitness center using these terms. Whether I’m speaking to a client regarding their goals or sharing instructions on warm-up drills, these two words often get used interchangeably; however, they are not identical.
An Exercise Example to Illustrate the Difference
Generally speaking, flexibility can simply be defined as the greatest length a muscle can achieve during a range of motion (ROM), passively or actively. Mobility also requires achieving a certain ROM, but it also requires coordination and core strength to move around the joint under load.
Let’s examine a front squat to help make this clear. A flexible person may reach the deep squat position, enabled by the flexibility in ankles, knees, and hips, but then lack the mobility (coordination and core strength) needed to correctly complete the exercise by standing up. Similarly, without flexibility, that person wouldn’t even begin to reach the range of motion needed for the deep position required for the front squat, so mobility isn’t even a factor without the proper flexibility.
The Affects of Age
When it comes to flexibility and mobility, age is definitely not on our side. As we age, we lose the elasticity in our muscles, and the tendons and ligaments tighten, making flexibility hard work. It’s not until someone suffers from poor movement patterns resulting in limited functional movement that causes injuries for someone to start trying to combat the effects of aging. (You can learn more about your own condition by having a Functional Movement Screening at NIFS.)
Movement vs. Static Hold
Lastly, when looking to improve and enhance these two concepts, mobility requires movement, whether we are testing for it or training to improve it. On the other hand, flexibility is done more often with a static hold. It’s safe to say that you could have excellent flexibility (the length of muscles required for a deep squat) but very poor mobility because you do not possess the ability to stand up out of a deep squat position under load.
Let me share with you a few helpful movements to further differentiate between these two concepts:
Flexibility Mobility Elbow to instep Elbow to instep w/ oscillation Half-kneeling ankle Ankle moving in and out Knee hug Hip drop
Be sure to stay tuned for part 2 of this series as I discuss the important addition of stability to your movement patterns.
This blog was written by Cara Hartman, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.
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