As a dietitian and personal trainer, I get asked this hopeful question a lot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.
In fact, fat distribution is very dependent on genetics, among some other variables. Things like age, hormones, medications, smoking, and stress can all affect where you gain weight in your body. Still, the myth of being able to target belly fat with core exercises remains a popular one. But, let’s review the facts.
The Confusion Behind Belly FAt
Targeting belly fat is a form of spot reduction. Spot reduction is the idea that if you train specific muscles or parts of the body, it will result in a loss of fat from that area of your body. For example, to target belly fat you might do a lot of crunches. Unfortunately though, this is simply not how our bodies work.
One area for confusion might come from looking at lean individuals that are weight training. If you already have a lean and toned physique, when you target certain areas of your body with exercise, this may result in further defining those muscles. However, when it comes to losing fat, unlike muscle definition, it’s a general whole body process – not localized.
What Studies Show
Scientists have looked into this very hypothesis, and the research is clear. A 2013 study using both male and female participants reported that localized muscle endurance resistant training was not effective in reducing fat in the targeted regional body area. Still, it did result in reducing overall body fat. Other studies from the University of Califronia Irvine and the University of Connecticut came to similar conclusions.
Why Body Fat Is So Hard To Lose
For one thing, it’s important to understand that your body doesn’t burn fat first. Instead, it prefers to burn blood glucose and stored muscle glycogen. Our bodies can actually store up to 2000 calories of glycogen in our muscles over 12-24 hours. That means, it will take a while before our body resorts to burning fat stores.
Although it gets a bad rap, fat is your life source. Your body doesn’t want to tap into the reserve, unless it absolutely has to. For that reason, some sources recommend exercising in a fasted state, or exercising for very long periods of time in order to burn fat. (Think over ninety minutes.) While this might be possible for some, it’s not practical for most individuals. And even more importantly – it’s not very enjoyable.
A Better WAy TO Burn Fat
While we can’t target losing belly fat in our workouts specifically, we can work to reduce body fat overall. Doing so, doesn’t require any extreme measures. You simply need to burn calories and boost metabolism.
Rather than doing endless crunches to burn belly fat, think more holistically. The only way to burn fat in your mid-section, is to get the whole body burning fat.
In terms of exercise, cardio will yield the greatest calorie burn. An even better option though, is to couple cardio with strength training. This will increase metabolism, as well as help build lean muscle mass. This is important because the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn – even at rest.
A specific type of exercise that provides both cardio and strength training is high intensity interval training, or HIIT. HIIT is a widely popular form of exercise because it can create an after-burn effect. The after-burn effect is an increase in resting metabolic rate that can continue for up to 24 hours post-exercise.
Really though, any form of exercise is beneficial towards your health. Fat loss and muscle building can happen in many forms of movement – not just HIIT. The important thing is to find an exercise that feels good to you and stick with it.
Generally, the World Health Organization recommends adults engage in 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, five days a week. And that’s just to maintain. If you want to lose weight, consider ramping that up to an hour six days a week.
Of course, you can’t exercise away a bad diet. But that doesn’t mean you have to embark on an extreme diet to get a flat stomach, either. Nutritionally, you want to fuel your body appropriately prior to exercise and replenish after. (See my other article on what to eat before and after workouts for more detail.)
Remember, you can control your calories without eliminating entire food groups. Overall, you should be focusing on fueling your body throughout the day with a balance of grains, protein, produce, and fats at each meal. Choose satisfying snacks for fuel (think protein, fat, and fiber.) And for extra credit, you can always stock up on these metabolism-boosting foods.