Call it what you want — a beer belly, a stout midsection, a gut.
Belly fat doesn't just prevent you from fitting into your favourite pair of jeans. Fat that accumulates in the midsection can have serious implications for your health.
Having a larger waist circumference is a better indicator of health problems than commonly used measurements like body-mass index (BMI), according to a growing body of research. Specifically, having a waist size higher than 101 centimetre around for men or just shy of 88cm for women is correlated with a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and a heart attack. There's even evidence that having more belly fat is correlated with lower cognitive performance.
Researchers think belly fat is distinct from other types of fat — like the stuff under your skin or around your arms or thighs, which doesn't necessarily have negative effects on health — because belly fat could be a sign that you have more visceral fat. That's a type of fat that accumulates around internal organs, impairing their functions and raising stress levels.
While we need a certain amount of body fat to be healthy, the diseases associated with excess belly fat are a reason to try to reduce these fat levels.
Various factors can influence how much belly fat you have, including genetics, hormone levels, a poor diet, excess calories from alcohol, and the loss of muscle mass that occurs from ageing. Men in particular tend to accumulate abdominal fat.
If you want to lose the gut, focus on diet and exercise, according to Shawn Arent, director of the Centre for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
"Other than surgery, exercise is the only way to change your body shape," Arent said.
The bad news is that there's no one exercise you can use to target belly fat in particular.
"You can't spot reduce," Arent said.
So the best approach is to reduce body fat overall, which reduces belly fat in turn. You can also tone and strengthen your core muscles — with better exercises than crunches — but doing so won't melt away belly fat specifically.
Another key way to lose weight overall is to maintain a quality diet. That means avoiding added sugars, processed carbohydrates, and excessive calories from alcohol; instead, eat whole grains, plenty of vegetables, and sufficient protein.
Arent said strength training is especially important for reducing belly fat, since it allows you to build muscle mass.
To assess an individual's fitness level, Arent assesses how much of their overall body mass is made up of muscle and how much is fat.
If someone wants to lower their body-fat percentage, Arent said it's especially important to incorporate strength training — which is part of recommended fitness guidelines but often neglected — into a workout regimen.
It's possible to get leaner with aerobic exercise as well, since those workouts can burn fat, he said. But by incorporating strength training, you burn fat while adding muscle, which results in a faster reduction of your body-fat percentage. Plus, as you get stronger and muscle mass increases, your body will burn more kilojoules.
Increasing muscle mass has been shown to decrease levels of visceral fat, according to Arent.
Plus, many other benefits come with exercise. Aerobic exercise can decrease one's risk for a number of diseases and improve cognitive performance. Both aerobic workouts and strength training are also associated with mental health benefits and lower rates of depression and anxiety. And via strength training, people can reverse the loss of muscle and bone density that comes with ageing, making it easier to avoid injuries and move about the world.
"The benefits of exercise are pretty damn robust," Arent said. "Exercise is medicine."
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