Exercises that promise to melt your middle are a staple in fitness magazines and on websites. Although these moves might make you feel the burn while they're developing the musculature of your abdominals, they won't rid you of the fat that covers your abs. Following a comprehensive weight-loss program focused on choosing healthy foods, reducing your calorie intake and getting more overall movement, offers the best method to help slim your stomach.
About Stomach Fat
Your abdomen carries two types of fat -- subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is the squishy, pinchable fat that lies beneath the skin. Subcutaneous fat is an exceptionally stubborn fat to lose, but moderate amounts of it won't increase your risk of disease.
Visceral fat lies deep in your belly, feels almost firm to the touch and causes your waistline to protrude. Visceral fat is an especially insidious type of fat because it encases the internal organs, and -- acting like an endocrine organ -- it releases compounds into your bloodstream that affect other tissues. It also increases your risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. A man's waist circumference that's greater than 40 inches or a woman's waistline greater than 35 inches indicates too much visceral fat.
How You Reduce Fat
Doing spot-training exercises may make you feel as if you're actually melting away fat when you twist, crunch and side bend. But even though you're activating the muscles of your core -- you're barely affecting the fat.
You burn fat when your body doesn't get adequate calories to fuel activity and basic bodily functions. Your body then turns to the fat stored as triglycerides in your fat cells. Triglycerides can't be used directly for energy, however. You must first convert them into fatty acids and glycerol, which your body then uses in a complex process to create energy.
But you can't pick the spots from which your body mobilizes those fat stores -- the pattern of fat burn is based on genetics and hormones. Although abdominal exercises feel challenging, they don't use a lot of excess energy, so they don't mobilize fat stores.
Count Calories to Slim Down
You lose subcutaneous and visceral belly fat by eating a healthy, reduced-calorie diet and by getting more physical activity. Because visceral fat is biologically active, visceral fat is often the fat that responds first to these measures. In contrast, subcutaneous fat secretes a greater number of healthy molecules, including leptin -- a hormone that contributes to feelings of fullness, and adinopectin -- a hormone that regulates your body's ability to process dietary sugars and fats. As a result, your body is in less of a hurry to release subcutaneous fat.
To set a calorie intake that's right for your abdominal fat-loss goal, use an online calculator to determine how many calories you burn a day. Then, subtract 500 to 1,000 calories to arrive at a calorie intake that will support a loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week. Avoid making the deficit too low, however. Eating fewer than 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day for a woman or fewer than 1,600 to 1,800 calories a day for a man, may cause your metabolism to stall and may lead to nutritional deficiencies and muscle loss.
Physical Activity for a Flatter Abdomen
Targeted abdominal exercises should be part of your exercise program to lose fat -- but they're not the only part. Engaging in an aerobic activity, such as jogging or swimming, uses a greater amount of energy so you'll burn more calories to contribute to the calorie deficit. Doing more daily activity also contributes to a greater calorie burn. For example, tap your foot, take the stairs or get off the bus one stop earlier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week; getting more than this may provide even greater health and weight-loss benefits.
Doing strength training for all the major muscle groups helps you maintain muscle as you create a calorie deficit to lose weight. Your abs are one of these muscle groups, along with your chest, back, shoulders, arms, thighs and hips. Muscle is a more metabolically active tissue than fat, so your body uses more calories to maintain muscle as opposed to fat tissue. This provides an automatic boost to your metabolism, which makes creating a calorie deficit easier.
- American Council on Exercise: 6 Strategies for Losing the Spare Tire
- Harvard Health Publications: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Harvard Health Publications: Taking Aim at Belly Fat
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Assessing Your Weight
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- Go Ask Alice: Ideal Caloric Intake?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?
- National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Very Low-Calorie Diets
- American College of Sports Medicine: Metabolism Is Modifiable With the Right Lifestyle Changes
- Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis