For some people, your core is one of the last places fat comes off your body as you lose weight. But if you follow a simple core weight loss program, you can slim down your entire body — including your belly and/or hips.
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Sorry, No Spot Reduction
If you are looking for core exercises for weight loss, you've got company: According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 71 percent of Americans have overweight or obesity. Let's get the bad news out of the way first: Doing sit-ups and other core exercises will build strong muscles in your core, which includes not only your abs, but also your hips and your lower back. But no matter how many sit-ups you do, they won't remove body fat from just your abdomen.
That's because the whole idea of using targeted exercise to burn fat from one body part, also known as spot reduction, is a myth that has been directly debunked in clinical studies. For example, in a 12-week study of 40 women that had overweight and obesity, half the subjects dieted while the other half combined diet with abdominal resistance training.
Both groups lost weight, but there was no significant difference in weight loss, waist circumferences or subcutaneous belly fat for either group. The results were published in the March/April 2015 issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics.
It's clear that doing endless sit-ups won't help you lose weight from your core. What will help, however, is establishing a calorie deficit or, to put it another way, burning more calories than you take in. That forces your body to use stored fat as fuel, which will cause you to slim down all over — including your core.
Any calorie deficit will help you lose weight over time, but there's a limit to how far you should take it: When you set your weight loss goals, consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss, which is 1 to 2 pounds per week. That works out to a deficit of up to 500 to 1,000 calories/day.
Losing weight gradually and steadily like that might not sound as exciting as a sudden crash diet. But the CDC notes that unlike crash diets, the sustainable lifestyle changes you make to achieve gradual weight loss mean you're much more likely to keep the weight off in the long run.
As Harvard Health Publishing notes, you shouldn't take your daily calorie intake below 1,200 (for women) or 1,500 (for men) unless you're under a doctor's supervision.
Your Core Weight Loss Program
If you want to burn belly fat — or slim down your hips, which are also part of your core — you have two tools for achieving the calorie deficit you need. The first is making a modest decrease in your calorie intake, so that you consume fewer calories in the first place. The second tool is increasing your physical activity, so that you burn more calories.
According to research findings from the National Weight Control Registry — a massive study of more than 10,000 people who've successfully lost weight and kept it off — the vast majority of successful weight loss happens when you use both of those tools together. Whatever calorie deficit you've chosen as a target, aiming to achieve half that deficit through diet and the other half through exercise is one way of striking a healthy balance.
You can certainly aim to lose weight with a calorie deficit of less than 500 calories/day; it'll just take longer for the weight to come off. One pound of fat is generally accepted to be equal to 3,500 calories worth of stored energy.
Again, you can't control which body parts the fat comes off of, or direct weight-loss efforts specifically toward your core. But if you keep up that steady calorie deficit you'll gradually slim down everywhere, including your core. It can be hard to measure your own progress objectively, so consider measuring your waist or hip circumference with a flexible measuring tape every two weeks. Logging those results is an inexpensive, easy way of tracking your progress over time.
Balancing Diet and Exercise
Based on CDC recommendations for healthy weight loss, achieving half your calorie deficit through diet means cutting up to 250 to 500 calories, per day, from a diet that would otherwise maintain your weight. What does that look like?
First, use the American Council on Exercise daily intake calorie counter to estimate how many calories a day you need to maintain your weight. Then track the calorie values of everything you eat — and drink — for at least several days to get an idea of how much you're really consuming.
Then, it's time for a little math. For example, if you need 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight and want to trim your diet by 250 calories per day, you should aim to eat 1,750 calories per day. Take a look at how you're eating now, and then make some or all of the following changes suggested by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
- Opt for minimally processed foods whenever possible.
- Drink water instead of high-calorie beverages.
- Focus on eating whole grains, and a colorful variety of whole fruits and vegetables (instead of fruit and vegetable juices).
- Choose healthful sources of protein such as fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and beans.
- Limit your intake of fruit juice, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, red and processed meats, and other highly processed foods.
And finally, be kind to yourself if you occasionally slip up, or if it takes a little while to get your diet exactly where you want it. As the saying goes, you're running a marathon, not a sprint; the real goal is finding a way of eating that works for you — so a little trial and error is an expected part of the process.
Benefits of Core Exercises
Even though you can't spot-reduce fat from your torso, you should still work your core muscles. As the Mayo Clinic points out, maintaining a strong core improves your balance and stability, boosts your athletic performance, reduces your risk of injury and makes everyday tasks easier. Building a strong core can also improve your posture, and sometimes that's all it takes to make you look a little slimmer right away.
But don't stop there. Doing aerobic activity and strength-training for your entire body — instead of just your core — packs in a whole world of healthy benefits. In fact, to maintain good health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends doing at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. You can also mix and match a combination of intensities.
That can include anything from walking and swimming to running, hiking, using a stationary rower, pedaling an elliptical trainer, playing sports or taking fitness classes at the gym — if it gets your heart rate up and your large muscle groups moving rhythmically, it counts. Just remember that you're looking to burn up to another 250 to 500 calories to create that calorie deficit, so use a mobile app, the American Council on Exercise calorie counter or similar tools to track your calorie burn.
Save Time With Compound Exercises
The HHS also recommends strength-training all your major muscle groups at least twice a week. Again, that includes your core — but that doesn't mean you have to do endless sit-ups to reach your goals.
Consider including compound exercises that challenge your balance while working more than one other muscle group, from regular squats and lunges to curtsy squats, side squats, many suspension training exercises, and single-arm, single-leg deadlifts. These exercises are a great way to top off your core workout for fat loss, because they make your core work overtime to stabilize your body while also burning more calories and mimicking the real-world movements of everyday life.
- Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics: "Effect of Abdominal Resistance Exercise on Abdominal Subcutaneous Fat of Obese Women"
- National Center for Health Statistics: "Obesity and Overweight"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Is Healthy Weight Loss?"
- The National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- American Council on Exercise: "Calculate Your Daily Caloric Needs"
- Mayo Clinic: "Core Exercises: Why You Should Strengthen Your Core Muscles"
- American Council on Exercise: "Physical Activity Calorie Counter"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Healthy Weight Checklist"