No, endless crunches aren't the secret to a flat belly. Crunches, sit ups and planks may strengthen the muscles that lie underneath excess belly fat, but they don't burn it off. Cardio exercise that raises your heart rate for an extended period of time is more likely to help you slim down that muffin top.
When paired with a reduced-calorie diet, cardio helps you create a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn. Your body must then tap into fat stores for fuel, which helps you lose weight.
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Choose the Right Cardio for Fat Loss
The type of cardio exercise you choose is less important than the intensity at which you perform it. While any activity is positive when it comes to losing belly fat, moving at a high intensity or performing high-intensity intervals is most effective.
In a 2009 study published in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, older individuals who raised their heart rate to 75 percent or more of their maximum heart rate, a level considered high intensity, and burned 1,000 calories a week for 12 weeks lost notable amounts of visceral fat. Those who burned the same number of calories with low- or moderate-intensity did not experience the same reduction in belly fat.
High-intensity interval training, which involves alternating short bouts of all-out effort with short periods of rest or lower-intensity effort, turns on fat-burning mechanisms in the body.
A meta-analysis published in the "Journal of Obesity" in 2011 declared that this type of exercise is more effective than steady-state cardio performed at a constant moderate pace when it comes to burning fat, including subcutaneous and visceral fat.
Read more: How to Use the Elliptical for Fat Loss
How to Incorporate High-Intensity Cardio
For high-intensity cardio, warm up for five to 10 minutes at an easy pace with an exercise mode of choice — could be on a stationary bicycle, treadmill or outdoor track. Then work at an intensity that's 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate for 20 minutes or more at a time. Be sure to cool down for several minutes.
For HIIT cardio, warm up for five to 10 minutes, and then structure your workout so you go hard for 30 seconds to four minutes at a time and recover for an equal or slightly longer period of time. For example, sprint for 1 minute, then walk for one minute 10 times, for a total of 20 minutes. Cool down at an easy pace for three to five minutes to complete a session.
Calculate Your Caloric Burn
The most important criteria in choosing the best fat-loss cardio workout for you is the one you'll stick with over time. Choose from any of the following (or tell us in the comments what your go-to cardio workout is):
- Stair stepper: 223 calories
- Step aerobics: 372 calroies
- Circuit training: 298 calories
- Elliptical: 335 calories
- Stationary cycling: 391 calories
- Running 6 mph: 372 calories
- Jumping rope: 372 calories
*Average caloric burn for a 155-pound person for 30 minutes of high-intensity work.
Complement Cardio With Strength Training
Even though you're after the calorie burning and fat-loss effects of cardio, strength training is also critical to belly fat loss. A comprehensive strength-training routine that builds muscle in all the major muscle groups makes your body more efficient at burning calories.
Aim for a minimum of two resistance-training workouts per week that target the back, chest, arms, shoulders, legs, hips and abs. One set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise for each of these groups is sufficient, as long as you use weight that fatigues the muscle group by the last couple of repetitions.