Gym exercise is almost always good for you — but it's not always easy. If you're fighting the battle of the belly bulge and want to be sure you're getting the most out of your gym time, take heart: Every exercise machine in the gym will help you in your quest toward a slimmer midsection as long as you use it faithfully and vigorously. However, there are a few machines that scientists have found to be particularly useful.
Why Your Gym Workout Matters
If you can pinch an inch — or two — of extra fat around your belly, you're far from alone. But doing an impression of the Pillsbury Doughboy isn't the healthiest way to live your life because having extra fat in the belly area is associated with a greater risk of many health problems, including cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and insulin resistance.
Visceral fat — which pads the space between your internal organs and often manifests as an "apple" body type that is wider at the belly and narrower at the shoulders and hips — is especially sneaky. This adipose tissue associated with higher risk of chronic disease, although scientists don't understand the exact cause.
The good news is that you can lose excess fat from everywhere on your body, including your belly. All you have to do is burn more calories than you take in over time, either by increasing your physical activity or making healthy eating choices.
According to the National Weight Control Registry, most people enrolled in the registry lost weight and kept it off by using a combination of the two methods — so putting in time with the right gym exercise machines can have a very real impact on your weight and health.
Treadmill and Elliptical Trainer
Walking or running are both fantastic exercises for losing belly fat — which makes both the treadmill and elliptical trainer excellent tools you can incorporate into your workout routine. If your elliptical trainer has moving handlebars, that's even better because you can put your upper body to work, pushing and pulling, to burn a few more calories.
While "more" and "faster" are almost always better for your calorie burn, even a relatively small amount of walking can have a noteworthy impact on your belly fat. In a small but compelling study published in a September 2014 issue of the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry, researchers found that, of their 20-woman subject pool, those who walked for 50 to 70 minutes three times a week had a significant decrease in belly fat. The control group did not.
Stationary Exercise Bikes
Of all the exercise machines in the gym, Harvard Health Publishing places a vigorous ride on a stationary bike near the top of its calorie burn estimates. For example, if you weigh 185 pounds and bike vigorously for half an hour, you'll burn more than 450 calories.
If you're not comfortable sitting on a normal bike seat for extended periods, that's perfectly fine. The seat on a stationary bike is usually much wider and better cushioned.
For extra comfort, you can switch to a recumbent bike, which has the widest seat of all and some back support as well. You can also wear padded bike shorts — just like you'd use for riding long distances on a real bike — to make your gym workouts more comfortable.
A Rowing Machine
Rowing doesn't rank far behind stationary bikes for calorie burn — and that's hardly a surprise, because a stationary rower puts your entire body to work, from the powerful leg drive at the start of the stroke to your core and upper body working to transfer the energy through your hips and torso to quick hands on your imaginary oar — the machine's handle.
According to the same set of estimates from Harvard Health, if you weigh 185 pounds, 30 minutes of vigorous rowing on an indoor rower can burn more than 375 calories. Just make sure you use proper technique.
Whichever exercise machine you use, consider incorporating sprint intervals into your workout. They're a great way to do more work (code for burning more calories) in less time. And, according to a meta-analysis published in February 2018 in the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine, high-intensity intervals were found to be an effective means of reducing abdominal and visceral fat (along with the rest of your body fat).
Weight Machines and Free Weights
Every machine in the gym cardio area is useful in your quest to burn belly fat — but don't forget to include some weight machines or free weights in your workout routine, too. In a study published in a December 2014 issue of Obesity, researchers followed 10,500 men for 12 years and found that, of their physical activities, regular weight training had the greatest impact on waist circumference.
Weight machines will do the job, but if you can maintain proper form, compound exercises with free weights are even better. That's because they recruit more muscles at once to lift and stabilize the weights, so you're squeezing more work into a shorter time. Just a few of the exercises you can do to help burn belly fat and build a strong body include leg presses or squats, deadlifts, bench presses or chest presses and lat pulldowns or rows.
What About Your Diet?
Exercise has a lot to do with losing extra fat around your belly or, really, anywhere on your body. But if you're not careful, you can undo all that hard work with the exercise machines by making poor eating choices.
With great power in the kitchen comes great eating responsibility, so make sure you bolster your weight loss efforts by focusing on healthy eating habits, including:
- Skipping highly processed and refined foods
- Eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Choosing high-quality proteins like fish, light meat poultry, nuts and seeds
- Limiting your intake of sodium, added sugar, trans fats and unhealthy saturated fats
If you want a ballpark figure for how many calories you should be eating, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) offers a chart of estimated calorie intakes according to age, gender and activity level. Those amounts are for maintaining your current weight. The National Institutes of Health recommends reducing your food intake by 500 to 750 calories per day to lose approximately 1 to 1.5 pounds per week.
According to the National Institutes of Health, most women can safely lose weight on a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, and men on a diet of 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day. Don't eat less than that unless you're in the care of a medical professional.
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry: "Effect of Walking Exercise on Abdominal Fat, Insulin Resistance and Serum Cytokines in Obese Women"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass"
- Obesity: "Weight Training, Aerobic Physical Activities and Long-Term Waist Circumference Change in Men"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- National Institutes of Health: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"