By Dr. Mercola
Many find that their abdominal area is particularly difficult to firm and tone and contrary to popular belief, solely doing standard sit ups is not likely to be of much help. Learning effective methods for shrinking your waistline is worth the effort however, as the benefits extend far beyond mere aesthetics.
Abdominal fat actually produces inflammatory molecules, and high inflammation levels in your body can trigger a wide range of systemic diseases linked with metabolic syndrome. This is why carrying extra weight around your middle is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other chronic diseases.
Besides aesthetics and reducing your disease risk, having strong core muscles will also allow you to maintain good posture, conduct everyday movements of reaching and bending more easily and safely, continue to have strong continence, and sustain strong balance and stability.
But why is it so difficult to shed fat from this area, despite hard workouts? The featured article in Time Magazine1 lists several potential reasons why you’re not losing belly fat.
Age May Be a Factor, But It’s Not an Excuse
With age, your body chemistry changes, and many of those changes make it increasingly difficult to lose weight. For example, around the age of 30, your human growth hormone (HGH) level begins to drop off, and HGH helps with both fat metabolism and muscle building. And, as noted in the featured article:
“Both men and women experience a declining metabolic rate... On top of that, women have to deal with menopause. ‘If women gain weight after menopause, it’s more likely to be in their bellies,’ says Michael Jensen, MD, professor of medicine in the Mayo Clinic’s endocrinology division.”
The good news is that you can counteract this chain of events, provided you make and maintain the appropriate lifestyle changes. Choosing your exercise wisely is perhaps the most efficient way to bolster your body’s capacity to function optimally as you get older, and this includes maintaining healthy hormone levels.
Many people fail to realize that exercise can have a pronounced effect on your hormone production, naturally raising sex hormones and HGH, for example, which can have a more or less direct bearing on weight management.
Three Exercise Mistakes That May Be Sabotaging Your Fitness Efforts
The featured article lists three common exercise mistakes that could be sabotaging your efforts to shed that stubborn belly fat. This includes choosing the wrong kind of workout, doing the exercises incorrectly, and/or doing exercises that aren’t challenging enough.
For starters, most people tend to focus on traditional cardio workouts when trying to lose weight, but running on a treadmill is typically not going to have any major impact on your waist size. Part of the problem is that cardio is among the least effective forms of exercise when it comes to weight loss.
Instead, opt for high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session.
High-intensity interval exercises are at the core of my Peak Fitness routine. This short intense training protocol improves muscle energy utilization and expenditure due to its positive effects on increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fiber quality.
Muscle tissue burns three to five times more energy than fat tissues, so as you gain muscle, your metabolic rate increases, which allows you to burn more calories, even when you're sleeping.
HIIT is also extremely time efficient. You can actually lose more weight by reducing the amount of time you spend exercising, because when you’re doing HIIT, you only need 20 minutes, two to three times a week.
Any more and you'll overdo it! The key factor that makes interval training so effective is intensity. To reap maximum results, you need to work out at maximum intensity, with rest periods in between spurts.
It’s also important to remember to keep upping the intensity as you get fitter. Again, if the exercise is not challenging enough, you’re not going to reap results. You can get the details on how to properly perform high-intensity interval exercises in the following video demonstration.
I also recommend incorporating Buteyko breathing into your workout, which involves breathing through your nose while doing your workout. This raises the challenge to another level, but it will also help you pace yourself as you may need to slow down in order to keep breathing through your nose.
Other Helpful Workout Tips to Effectively Shed Belly Fat
In addition to HIIT, you’ll want to consider adding some strength training to your program. Note that you can actually turn your strength training session into a high-intensity workout simply by slowing down your movements. Proper form is important, so to learn more about how to perform such exercises, please refer to my previous article, “Super-Slow Weight Training.”
Also, as mentioned earlier, spot reducing simply doesn’t work, so if you’re doing sit ups and little else, you’re not likely to see results. Besides being ineffective for weight loss, the traditional abdominal sit ups have been found to recruit and produce the least amount of muscle activity, which means it’s also ineffective for coaxing out that six pack.
Instead of doing just the standard sit up, add functional core-strengthening exercises like planking, which engages a wider range of muscle groups, including your arms, legs, glutes, back, pelvic muscles, and obliques. Here are two key points for performing a plank correctly:
- While in plank position, pull in your bellybutton. Your bellybutton is attached to your transverse abdominis, that inner sheath that holds your gut inside and gives your spine and vertebrae a nice, weight belt-tightening type of support. So by pulling it in, you begin to contract that deep inner transverse abdominis muscle. If you want to work your six-pack rectus abdominis muscle, drive your chin down toward your toes while you're focused on squeezing your bellybutton in.
- Next, do a Kegel squeeze. A Kegel squeeze is performed by drawing your lower pelvic muscles up and holding them up high and tight. For men who aren't familiar with that term, it's similar to trying to stop urinating in the middle of the flow. This squeeze will allow you to feel and focus on your abdominal muscles.
Another example of a functional exercise would be to work with a stability ball, as your body will have to engage a wide range of core muscles to stabilize itself on the ball. Keep in mind, however, that in order to really get "six-pack" abs, you have to shed fat. Men need to get their body fat down to about six percent, and women around nine percent in order to achieve a classic six-pack look.
Proper Diet Is Key for Success
No matter how much or how well you exercise, all your efforts may come to naught if you’re still eating processed foods, too many carbohydrates, and the wrong kinds of fat. Eating right is key for any kind of weight loss success, and it’s downright crucial when you’re trying to get rid of visceral fat around your internal organs. As noted in the featured article:2
“’Refined grains like white bread, crackers, and chips, as well as refined sugars in sweetened drinks and desserts increase inflammation in our bodies,’ says [registered dietitian Kate] Patton. ‘Belly fat is associated with inflammation, so eating too many processed foods will hinder your ability to lose belly fat.’”
Most people are not aware that leptin plays an enormously important role in the development of obesity. Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells that is just as important as insulin in determining your risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. It also impacts how much you eat and how much fat you burn, and leptin resistance specifically causes your body to produce and accumulate visceral fat around your midline. So how do you become leptin resistant? In short, by:
- Eating a diet that includes too many sugars and grains (grains turn to sugar once you consume them)
- The sugar metabolizes to (turns into) fat and is stored in your fat cells
- This activity in turn causes a surge in leptin
- Your body becomes resistant to leptin just as it can become insulin-resistant
When you’re leptin-resistant, your body no longer hears its own signals to stop eating, burn fat, or pass up sugary foods. As a result, you feel hungry, crave sweets, and your body continues to store fat even though it already has more than enough. When your body routinely stores this excess as visceral fat, you increase your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, vascular disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of your arteries), and an increased thickness in the walls of your heart.
Two Key Dietary Changes That Will Put You on the Right Track
Key dietary corrections you need to make in order to optimize your fat loss efforts include the following:
- Swap processed foods (including restaurant or fast food) for whole, ideally organic fare, focusing on raw vegetables. Cooking them will destroy many of their valuable micronutrients and biophotons. Juicing can help you boost your vegetable intake if you’re having trouble getting enough of them into your diet. By removing processed foods, you automatically cut out most of the refined sugars and carbs (grains) from your diet, along with a whole host of other health-harming chemicals and additives. If you opt for organic, you’ll also automatically avoid hazardous pesticides and herbicides, as well as genetically engineered ingredients
- Next, replace the missing carbs with healthful fats. The notion that glucose is the preferred fuel for your body is a pervasive one. Everyone from diabetics to top athletes are advised to make sure they eat "enough" carbs to keep their systems from crashing. This is unfortunate, as this misguided advice is at the very heart of many of our current health failures. (Keep in mind that when we're talking about harmful carbs, we're only referring to grains and sugars, NOT vegetable carbs.)
Fat is actually the preferred fuel of human metabolism, and this can be traced back to our evolutionary roots. Avoid highly processed and genetically engineered omega-6 oils like corn, canola, and soy, however, as they will upset your omega 6:3 ratio. All trans fats should be avoided, but contrary to popular advice, saturated fats are a key component of a healthy diet that will promote weight loss. Most people need as much as 50-85 percent of your daily calories in the form of healthy fat for optimal health.
It is important to note that these recommendations appear to be useful for most that are struggling with insulin or leptin resistance (overweight, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol ratios, or diabetes). If you don’t struggle with insulin/leptin resistance, then it would be wise to have a higher percentage of carbs and lower percentage of fat. It can be helpful to remember that fat is far more satiating than carbs, so if you have cut down on carbs and feel ravenous, this is a sign that you have not replaced them with sufficient amounts of fat. Sources of healthy fats that you'll want to add to your diet include:
Olives and olive oil (for cold dishes) ||
Coconuts and coconut oil (for all types of cooking and baking)
Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk ||
Grass-fed and pasture-finished meats
|Raw nuts, particularly macadamia ||
Organic pastured egg yolks
Unheated organic nut oils
Address Your Stress to Boost Your Weight Loss Efforts
Stress makes your body produce cortisol, known as “the stress hormone,” which depletes lean muscle and makes your body hold on to fat in the abdominal region. It also enlarges your fat cells, allowing them to store more fat. One of the most important strategies for addressing elevated cortisol levels is to reduce stress in your life. My favorite technique for addressing day-to-day stress is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is the largest and most popular version of energy psychology.
It’s a very effective technique that can help you reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. Getting enough sleep will also help reduce your cortisol levels, and can have a significant bearing on metabolic disorders such as obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, allowing such problems to improve. As noted in the featured article:
“If you’re among the 30 percent of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night, here’s one simple way to whittle your waistline: catch more Zs. A 16-year study of almost 70,000 women found that those who slept five hours or less a night were 30 percent more likely to gain 30 or more pounds than those who slept 7 hours.”
To Sleep Better at Night, Get Enough Sunlight During the Day
To address your sleep problems, I recommend beginning by realigning your circadian rhythms to the natural rhythm of daylight and nightfall. Without this synchronization, aspects of your waking/sleeping system will be working at the wrong time, making it difficult to sleep at night, while increasing daytime sleepiness. For an in-depth explanation of how this works, and why it’s so critical for your overall health, please see my interview with researcher Dan Pardi. Three key factors to keep in mind are as follows:
- Get daylight exposure, ideally around solar noon, for at least half an hour or more each day
- In the evening, dim environmental lights and avoid the blue light wavelength
- When it's time to go to sleep, make sure your bedroom is dark. I recommend installing blackout shades for this purpose, or use a sleep mask to avoid disrupting your melatonin production
Besides maintaining a natural circadian rhythm, there are a number of additional ways to help improve your sleep if you're still having trouble. For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article "33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep."
Are You Committed to Taking Control of Your Health?
As noted by Time Magazine, sometimes the only thing standing in your way is a lack of commitment to your own health. “Are you committed to the work needed to lose belly fat? ‘Reducing belly fat takes a combination approach of a low-calorie diet that is high in fiber and low in carbohydrates and sugar along with cardiovascular and weight training,’ Dr. Kashyap says. “If you are willing to do the work, you can move past genetics and lose it.”
Indeed, there’s no magic pill that will allow you to continue eating junk food and remain sedentary without suffering the ill effects. That doesn’t mean making changes have to be excruciating, however. I recommend starting with your diet, and then adding in the exercise as the weight starts coming off. I believe about 80 percent of your ability to reduce excess body fat is determined by what you eat, with the other 20 percent related to exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits such as sleep and stress reduction.
If you make the appropriate changes to your diet: boosting your vegetable intake and swapping refined carbs for healthful fats, you may be surprised at how quickly your body composition starts to change. For more details, I suggest you review my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which is a comprehensive and step-by-step guide to help you make health-promoting food and lifestyle choices.
Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few months, though. Some bodies require more time to make the shift from burning sugar to burning fat as its primary fuel. Just keep making incremental changes, and stick with it. Intermittent fasting can be helpful for making the transition faster. For details on this, check out my previous article, “What the Science Says About Intermittent Fasting.” There is simply no question in my mind that this is the most powerful tool you can use to optimize your lean body mass.
Last but not least, exercise correctly! For results, make sure you include high-intensity interval exercises, along with strength training and core-strengthening exercises. If you’ve lost track of how many hours you’ve spent plodding on the treadmill and squeezing out sit ups without success, implementing these changes may be the answer you’ve been looking for.