The secret to lose belly fat and score amazing abs? Stop doing crunches and start following these diet and exercise tips.
Although fat can be found in almost any part of your body, the kind that attaches itself to your middle can be the toughest to shed. And, unfortunately, as women age, the midsection increasingly becomes fat's destination of choice. "When a woman reaches her 40s, excess fat is likely to accumulate around the abdomen," says Steven R. Smith, M.D., an obesity expert at Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes in Orlando, Florida. "This belly fat is often just a redistribution of fat to the abdomen rather than a gain in total fat." So even a totally average-sized woman may be chagrined to discover that, as her estrogen levels decline during perimenopause, it’s a struggle bus to lose belly fat.
"By losing estrogen, you lose some of the normal contour of your body," explains Michael Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. "Instead of weight settling on your hips, it goes to your belly."
Essentially, abdominal fat takes two major forms: subcutaneous fat (the visible kind just below the skin) and visceral fat (which is embedded deep within your abdomen and wraps around the organs clustered there). Though the first kind of fat is easier to see, the latter kind poses the far greater health risk—and as a result, is more important in your overall quest to lose belly fat. Weirdly, this fat is not always evident. Even if you're not overweight, you still could be packing a lot of visceral fat. (Related: 7 Reasons You’re Not Losing Belly Fat)
Hidden or not, visceral fat does a real number on your health because of where it sits in the body. With fat, as with real estate, it's all about location, and each fat "depot" has a highly specialized function. "We used to think all fat was created equal, that it was just a storage bin for excess calories," says Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D., a consultant to the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. "But that's not true."
Fat, like muscle, is now known to be metabolically active; it produces dozens of chemicals, including hormones that signal to the brain that someone is hungry or satisfied. "Indeed, we now think of fat tissue depots as endocrine organs," says diabetes researcher Philipp Scherer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Texas.
In other words, fat releases hormones that vary depending on where the fat is located. You may not be a big fan of the size of your thighs, but research suggests that the hormones produced there provide a health benefit. "We don't know all the details," says Smith, "but it is clear that the fat in the hips, and particularly in the thighs, protects against some of the health consequences of obesity, such as diabetes, by producing substances that increase insulin sensitivity." Visceral fat, on the other hand, is known to produce inflammatory agents that can, over time, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colorectal cancers. (These 15 foods might help combat that inflammation.)
The Best Diet Plan to Lose Belly Fat
So are belly fat and its attendant health problems inescapable side effects of aging? The answer is a qualified no. "It's never too late to lose belly fat," says Jackie Keller, author of Body After Baby. "But there's no easy fix."
The best way to shrink fat cells overall is to lose weight. But make no mistake: Visceral fat is not easy to shed. Start by figuring out your current daily calorie intake. Then cut that number by one quarter. Researchers from Columbia University found that simply reducing daily calories (without adding exercise) can shrink fat cells by up to 18 percent, particularly those in subcutaneous fat. Health bonus? Fat shrinkage also improves the body's ability to use insulin, thereby guarding against diabetes.
Beyond counting calories, you can try the following strategies to lose belly fat and weight all at once.
- Balance the power. An ideal fat-burning meal plan includes 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrates, and 30 percent fat. Research has found that dieters who stuck to these ratios lose about 22 percent more belly fat after four months, and 38 percent more after a year, than those who follow a low-fat diet. Turn up the volume. Foods containing a lot of water and fiber (salads, vegetables, fresh or dried fruits, and whole-grain breads or pasta) expand in your stomach and make you feel full faster with fewer calories. (This is exactly the premise behind the volumetrics diet, BTW.)
- Stack the snacks. Eat small portions of healthy snacks three times a day. In research from Georgia State University, athletes who followed this pattern burned more fat and calories than those who waited for long periods to eat. (Related: Can Intermittent Fasting Help You Lose Belly Fat?)
- Go green. Research has found that women who drink about five cups of a beverage containing green tea each day, and include exercise in their routines, lose more belly fat than those who merely exercise. In addition to losing one inch around the waist, the tea drinkers decreased subcutaneous fat by 6 percent and visceral fat by 9 percent within 12 weeks. Researchers attributed the loss to catechin, an antioxidant in green tea.
- Fight fat with fat. It sounds counterintuitive, but a growing body of research suggests that a diet rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (popularly dubbed MUFAs) keeps belly fat at bay. Among the most common foods containing MUFAs are olives, nuts, avocados, and the oils from these foods. (Here’s yet another reason to add more healthy fats to your menu.)
The Best Exercise Plan to Lose Belly Fat
Diet, of course, is only part of the picture on your mission to lose belly fat. Exercise, and the right type of it, is crucial to boosting your metabolism and shrinking both subcutaneous and visceral fat cells. If you're not working out regularly, now is the time to start, using these guidelines:
- Get off the couch. Going for a brisk 45-minute walk five times a week not only helps you lose flab but also has been shown to reduce the disease-causing inflammation in visceral fat. You should aim for a pace of three to four miles per hour. (Or try these effective walking workings to lose belly fat!) Don't have that much time available all at once? According to trainers and other fitness experts, bouts of exercise as short as one minute each can still benefit your belly—as long as you log a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity a day. (Related: The 30 Greatest Flat-Belly Tips of All Time)
- Raise your rate. Increasing your heart rate to 80 percent of its maximum for 40 minutes can speed up your metabolism for 19 hours, scientists have discovered. To calculate this target heart rate, subtract your age from 220, then multiply by .80.
- Up the ante. Want even quicker results? Try an interval workout that alternates high- and low-intensity exercise. The powerful bursts of energy use more fat as fuel and the rest periods in between allow your body to flush out waste products from muscles. Bonus: High-intensity interval training may suppress the hunger hormone ghrelin. (Discover 8 more *major* benefits of HIIT.)
- Join the resistance. Why? Resistance training builds muscle, and more muscle means a faster metabolism. Aim to strength-train for at least 30 minutes two to three times a week and switch up lower- and upper-body exercises. Tip: Experts say that you lose more belly fat by lifting weights before your cardio workout. (Related: 11 Ways Lifting Weights is Amazing For Your Body)
The Best At-Home Workout Moves to Lose Belly Fat (No Crunches Here!)
File this under “best lose belly fat news ever:” You need not crunch to get the most effective abs workout. "Crunches work only the muscles on the front and sides of your abdomen, but it's important to target all the muscles of the core to get more defined abs—including lower back, hips, and upper thighs," says Lou Schuler, co-author of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs.
To lose belly fat and uncover amazing abs, Schuler recommends a series of core stabilization exercises based on a training program devised by co-author and personal trainer Alwyn Cosgrove. "Core exercises like the plank help train muscles to stabilize the spine and pelvis so you can avoid back pain and improve posture, Schuler says. "Planks also burn more calories than crunches because they work more muscles." (P.S. Crawling is a great dynamic abs exercise too.)
Trade crunches for these three super-effective plank exercises from The New Rules of Lifting for Abs and you’ll be on your way to a stronger core and flatter stomach.
The Best Abs Exercise to Lose Belly Fat: Side Plank
Why it works: This move is more challenging than a traditional plank because you're supporting your entire body weight on two points of contact instead of four. As a result, you must work your core harder to stay stabilized. How to do it:
- Lie on your left side with your elbow directly beneath your shoulder and legs stacked. Place your right hand on your left shoulder or on your right hip.
- Brace your abs and lift your hips off the floor until you're balancing on your forearm and feet so that your body forms a diagonal line. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds. If you can’t hold that long, stay up as long as you can and then repeat until you’ve held for 30 seconds total. Switch sides and repeat.
The Best Abs Exercise to Lose Belly Fat: Walkout from Pushup Position
Why it works: This advanced plank exercise involves full-body movement, such as using the arms and legs, while incorporating resistance to strengthen your entire core. (Then try this 30-day plank challenge for your strongest core ever.)
How to do it:
- Start in push-up position with hands two inches wider than your shoulders.
- Walk hands out as far as possible, then walk back. Do 10-12 reps.
Make it harder: Lift one leg before you walk your hands out and back.
The Best Abs Exercise to Lose Belly Fat: Alligator Drag
Why it works: This plank uses your entire core to keep your body stabilized and burns additional calories by adding movement (dragging yourself along the floor). It mixes cardio, stability, and strength training to help you lose belly fat fast. (Related: Even More On The Best Exercises to Lose Belly Fat)
How to do it:
- Find a stretch of floor that allows you to go forward 10 to 20 yards, and grab anything that will slide over the surface with minimal friction. Dinner plates or plastic bags work on a carpeted floor, while towels work on wood or tile.
- Start in push-up position with your feet on the slides, towels, or plates.
- Walk yourself forward with your hands to the end of your runway (aim for at least 10 yards). Rest for 60 to 90 seconds (or as long as you need to recover) and repeat the alligator walk back to where you started. That’s one set. Repeat one more time.