You want to get rid of that spare tire you've been carrying around your midsection and have started to cut back on calories and eat more nutritiously. Exercise is an important part of the equation too, but what kind of activities are best for reducing belly fat?
According to a new study that took place at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, aerobics are the way to go.1 Vigorous cardiovascular exercise was found to burn the fat around the midsection off more effectively than a weight training workout.
The volunteers were 144 men and women between the ages of 18 and 70 years old. They were randomly divided into three groups for the eight-month study. One group did regular aerobic exercise walking on a treadmill set on an incline and their workouts totaled about 12 miles of jogging at 80 percent of their maximum heart rate per week. The second group performed resistance training exercises with three sets of eight to 12 repetitions on weight training machines three times a week. The third group did both the aerobic and weight training workouts.
You might assume that the group that did a combination of activities would achieve the greatest reduction in belly fat. But that is only partially correct. The participants who did both aerobics and weight training did have the greatest total belly fat losses, but they lost less visceral fat than the group that only did aerobics. Visceral fat is the fat that is deeper within your body, surrounding the organs and associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. Subcutaneous fat, which is the layer of fat immediately below the skin, may not look too attractive, but is not nearly as dangerous as visceral fat.
In this study, the group that did only aerobics lost the most visceral fat. The group that did both workouts lost the most total belly fat but less visceral fat than the aerobics group. And the group that only performed resistance exercises lost the least total belly fat, with a reduction in subcutaneous fat and, in fact, a small gain of visceral fat.
It makes sense that those people doing a regular cardiovascular workout would have the greatest reduction in belly fat since it burns more calories than weight training does. So the study makes sense, at least within its limited parameters. But there are several factors the researchers did not take into account. First, they didn't evaluate interval training. Interval training is a form of aerobic exercise with periods of high intensity activity followed by periods of lower intensity activity. For example, you might run at your fastest pace for 30 seconds, followed by a rest interval in which you do not stop, but continue the same exercise -- maybe now lightly jogging -- to allow your body to recover from the intense burst. Then you repeat the set several times during the workout. Interval training has been shown to burn more fat -- both belly and visceral fat -- than typical, steady aerobic workouts do.2
But let's not forget that all forms of exercise are beneficial and work together to keep the body healthy. Aerobics or interval training may be the best fat blasters, but they are not the only workouts that are valuable. Strength training uses weights or some other form of resistance to build muscle and increase strength. And while it may lose out to aerobic exercise in the short term, over time, it may be the ultimate way to burn calories. A pound of muscle burns up to nine times the calories of a pound of fat. In other words, strength training, as you build up muscle mass, increases your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn while sleeping or sitting. Every pound of new muscle you add to your body will burn about 60 calories per day. In other words, at a certain point, the extra muscle you build through resistance training kicks in and starts burning both belly and visceral fat -- even while you sleep. And the more muscle you have, the more it burns.
Stretching is also crucial to good health. It can reduce muscle tension, help prevent injuries, offer increased range of movement in the joints, enhance muscular coordination, increase circulation of the blood to various parts of the body, and improve energy levels. Areas that are not well stretched are tight and constricted, which means they receive reduced blood flow, a reduced supply of nutrients, and reduced removal of metabolic waste, making them breeding grounds for illness and organ dysfunction. In addition, stretching allows you to keep following your exercise routine. If you tighten up, pulled muscles and aching joints will bring your exercise program to a standstill.
Balance is another key aspect of exercise. It diminishes with age unless we consciously exercise it. Many yoga poses are specifically designed as balance poses, utilizing the entire body. As your balance improves, you reduce your chances of falling down and breaking a hip or wrist. Rebounders, and vibrating platform exercise equipment can also help.
Exercising daily is as important to good health as proper nutrition. Start off slowly if you are not already working out. But make sure you incorporate elements of cardiovascular/interval exercise, strength training, stretching, and balance into your routine every single day for overall health and fitness.
1 Slentz, Cris A.; Bateman, Lori A.; Willis, Leslie H.; et al. "The Effects of Aerobic versus Resistance Training on Visceral and Liver Fat Stores, Liver Enzymes and HOMA from STRRIDE AT/RT: A Randomized Trial." American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism. August 2011. American Physiological Society. 15 September 2011. <http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/early/2011/08/10/ajpendo.00291.2011.abstract?sid=9839ebd0-e573-493b-b9b5-e6e795370659>.
2 Jason L. Talanian, Stuart D. R. Galloway, George J. F. Heigenhauser, Arend Bonen, and Lawrence L. Spriet. "Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women." Journal of Applied Physiology April 2007 vol. 102 no. 4 1439-1447. http://jap.physiology.org/content/102/4/1439.short.