It’s horrible but true, our bodies are designed to store fat. In times of famine, this was a useful trait, however with an abundance of food and an increase in sedentary behaviour in the modern area, this lifesaving evolutionary trait now sees us storing fat which is no longer of use to us.
Based on the 2011–12 Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Health Survey, 62.8% of Australians aged 18 years and over were overweight or obese, comprised of 35.3% overweight and 27.5% obese… Which means there are a lot of bellies out there.
Types of belly fat
There are two kinds of fat which surrounds your midsection, subcutaneous (‘under the skin’) and visceral (fat surrounding the vital organs). It is this visceral fat which is not only often leads to the dreaded beer belly, but the harmful type of fat that has been linked with numerous health risks.
Research shows males with a waistline measuring more than 94cm and females whose waists measure more than 80cm are at increased risk of developing certain health problems increased risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, cancer, sleep apnea, premature death, and high blood pressure to name a few. This is because most people with a lot of belly fat also have a lot of visceral fat.
It is however important to be aware that even if you are not yet obese, you may still have elevated levels of visceral fat surrounding your organs. And even if you were to remove the subcutaneous fat from around the belly through liposuction surgery, studies have shown that this would see no health improvement if the level of visceral abdominal fat remained as visceral fat around abdominal organs cannot be liposuctioned.
But there is good news. According to Dr. Klein, Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Science at Washington University School of Medicine, when people slim down through exercise and diet, visceral fat disappears twice as fast as subcutaneous fat.
So how do you go about getting rid of that extra weight around your midsection?
Well, the best place to start is to bring your weight under control by getting enough exercise.
Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Adults (18-64 years) recommends:
- Being active on most, preferably all, days every week.
- Accumulating 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
- Doing muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
But if this seems like a far cry from your current exercise regime, or lack thereof, it’s important to remember that doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some. Short brisk walks, doing household chores with a little gusto and dancing are all great ways to help get you started combating that abdominal fat, and help you gradually building up to the recommended amount of exercise.
Are there any particular exercises I should be doing?
I’m sorry to say, but there is no such thing as spot-reducing fat. Whilst abdominal exercises are great for strengthening your core and back, they won’t get at visceral fat.
Instead of focusing on spot strength-training exercises, taking a much broader approach to strength training can help fight abdominal fat. This is because an increase in muscle mass sets your body up to burn more fat.
In the book How to Keep Fit, Be Healthy & Stay Young: The Secrets to Living a Healthy and Youthful Life, Kate Patton, a registered dietician at the Cleveland Clinic explains that “Muscle burns more calories than fat, and therefore you naturally burn more calories throughout the day by having more muscle”.
What about cardio?
When it comes to burning fat, a combination of strength training and cardiovascular training is ideal.
A study conducted by exercise physiologists in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Human Studies found that as little as 80 minutes a week of aerobic or resistance training helps not only to prevent weight gain, but also to inhibit a regain of harmful visceral fat one year after weight loss. In the study, dieting women lost an average of 24 pounds without aerobic or strength-training exercise. Whilst this may sound ideal for some, it’s important to note that in the following year, those who maintained their exercise programs (40 minutes twice a week) maintained their visceral fat loss, while those who didn’t exercise or abandoned their programs showed a 33% average increase in visceral fat.
How important is diet?
If you really want to start reducing abdominal fat, a combination of diet and exercise is going to give you the best results.
One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so to lose one kilogram or 2.2 pounds of fat in a week, you would need to be in a 1100-calorie deficit every day for seven days or 7,700 calories per week. As you can imagine, this type of deficit is nearly impossible to achieve for most people with diet or exercise alone, and also the reason it is important to ensure your fat-loss goals are realistic for you and your lifestyle.
When the word ‘diet’ comes up in relation to fat-loss, most people start thinking about strict diets, pills, shakes and all sorts of exclusion diets. This kind of mentally is of no benefit to someone after fat-loss, as these types of diets are rarely maintainable long-term, and thereby often result in not only lost weight returning, but additional weight too.
The best way to go about establishing a healthy ‘diet’ might not sound as sexy as a ‘miracle pill’ or ‘a magic shake’ that will see you lose 5kg in 2 weeks, but it will definitely give you the long-term results you are after. By paying attention to portion size and committing to a diet full of complex carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread and pasta), lean proteins (such as turkey and chicken breast) and healthy fats (such as avocado), as recommended by The Australian Dietary Guidelines, you will not only be fuelling your body with the nutrition and energy it needs to begin shedding those extra kilos, but giving yourself the best possible chance of maintaining the fat-loss you’re after long term.
Just as with making alterations to you diet, the best approach to increasing your level of physical activity in your life is to take it slowly. By making a few small healthy changes to your eating habits and activity levels, that you can maintain as part of your lifestyle, you can begin to reap the benefits of losing that dreaded belly fat and keep it off in less time that you think.