The best ways to banish belly fat for men and women

Belly fat is bad news. Every extra inch around the waist increases your chances of dying prematurely.

A 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal found that for every four inches (10cm) of extra waist size, the chances of early mortality increase by 11 per cent.

Saying that, remember not all fat is created equal, neither is it all bad for you. It is vital for health to have a healthy percentage of body fat. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, normal fat composition for women aged 40 to 59 is between 23 to 33 per cent of total body mass. For men, the figure is around 11 per cent to 21 per cent. Women aged 60 to 79 should have 24 to 35 per cent body fat and men should have 13 to 24 per cent.

There are also different types of fat: brown, white, subcutaneous, and visceral. Brown fat, also called brown adipose tissue (BAT), helps the body burn white fat (white adipose fat, or WAT). This is because BAT contains cells that have mitochondria, energy-producing subcellular structures that convert calories into energy in the form of heat. Brown fat keeps you warm when it gets cold.

White fat is a simple energy store. Abdominal fat is white fat and can be classified as either subcutaneous fat or visceral fat depending on how and where it is stored.

Subcutaneous fat is the soft, pliant fat you can see and grab. It is generally the type of fat we notice when we look in the mirror and therefore is usually the type of fat people are most anxious to lose. It sits under the skin on top of the muscle.

While normal fat levels are healthy, too much fat can have devastating health effects. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that as upper body subcutaneous fat increased, so did blood pressure, BMI and fasting blood glucose (which is an indicator of diabetes risk), while good cholesterol, which helps remove bad cholesterol, decreased.

Visceral fat is stored within the abdominal cavity, surrounding the internal organs and is more common in men. It is also a form of white fat and is significantly more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, particularly at volume. It has been linked to heart disease, strokes, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, cancers, such as colon and prostate cancer, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to inflammation and scarring. It disrupts hormones and chemicals in ways researchers are still trying to understand.

Worryingly, people who appear normal-sized, or even slim, can still store dangerous levels of internal fat. Traditional methods of weight measurement, such as BMI, are not effective. The only truly accurate way to measure it is with imaging technology such as Dexa, MRI, CT and X-ray.

Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking. One 2017 study found that a protein released from fat can cause non-cancerous cells to turn into cancerous ones, and that fat around the stomach releases even more of this protein than other types of fat.

How do you lose belly fat?

Apart from “cheats” such as liposuction, gastric surgery and weight-loss drugs, the most effective way to reduce belly fat naturally is to “burn” it through calorie restriction and activity.

Fat cells are storage units filled with excess energy that are deposited around the body in a pattern dependent on genetics. Men are more prone to store fat around their abdomen and women are prone to store fat around their hips, thighs and bottoms.

Fat burning, also known as fat oxidation, begins when the energy supply within the bloodstream, called glycogen, begins to deplete. Hormones are released from the brain that trigger fat cells to release the energy packages they contain. These fatty acid molecules pass into the bloodstream where they are picked up by muscles, lungs and the heart. The fatty acids are then broken apart and the energy stored in them is used to fuel activity.

Can you target belly fat?

Although it isn’t possible to spot-reduce fat, there are ways you can reduce overall body fat and, as a result, your belly fat. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. While exercise plays a key role in fat loss, any fat reduction programme should focus most heavily on nutrition and reducing calorie intake to be effective.

“You can’t out train a bad diet,” explains Fraser Smith, a sports scientist and the founder of London’s Vive Fitness EMS studio. “Ultimately, the only way to reduce belly fat, and your overall body fat, is through nutrition and calorie burn. If you reduce your overall caloric intake, improve your food choices, and increase your energy burn, you will lose that stubborn fat.”

The simple rule of thumb is to burn more calories than you consume, says Smith. The best way to do this for people who are starting from a lower fitness baseline is to make incremental lifestyle changes.

“If you can burn a little extra through exercise and consume a bit less, inevitably it will start to work in a healthy, sustainable way, because it’s important to do something that is manageable and sustainable. If you just do an intense four- or five-week exercise programme and then stop, there is a tendency for your old habits to kick in and you will inevitably put the fat back on – make habitual changes to your lifestyle for long-lasting results.”

Nick Johnson, a personal trainer at David Lloyd Clubs, agrees: “Generally people suddenly decide at 40, 50, 60 that they need to do something about their health and proceed to dive into it with full force, doing as many classes, runs or gym sessions as possible which is fine for the first few days, or maybe even the first few weeks until their body starts to break down and they either stop or get injured.

“If body-fat reduction is your goal, then instead of trying to do as much as you can at once, I would strongly suggest starting with a small change from where you currently are with your diet and lifestyle.”

What is the best diet to reduce belly fat?

A recent study has revealed that eating kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish, with every meal can reduce the size of your beer belly. The beneficial bacteria found in kimchi was found to have a good effect on the gut, so introducing fermented foods into your diet could be the way to go.

“Abs are made in the kitchen,” says Johnson. “You will find it much more efficient to lose excess inches around your waist by focusing on food.”

A protein rich diet is best for fat loss. Johnson suggests keeping a food diary and aiming to eat roughly 1g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight and drinking two to three litres of water a day to make you feel fuller.

Eating kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish, can reduce belly fatEating kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish, can reduce belly fat

Eating kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish, can reduce belly fat – 4kodiak/E+

The importance of diet becomes evident when it is considered that one kilogram of fat contains 7,500 calories, and that running one mile burns around 80 to 140 calories.

Rhiannon Lambert, a nutritionist and founder of Harley Street Rhitrition clinic, points out that alcohol is one of the worst offenders when it comes to belly-busting consumables.

“Alcoholic drinks are calorific at seven calories per gram and provide very little nutrients,” she explains. “Alcohol slows down fat metabolism and makes you hungry, meaning you’re more likely to reach for less-nutritious choices such as pizza and kebabs. At social events, try alternating between sparkling water and alcoholic drinks.” Lambert also advises focusing on whole, fibre-rich natural foods.

“Things like fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils and wholegrains are great,” she explains. “Fibre can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Try to reduce processed and sugary foods, which can contribute to belly fat accumulation.”

Getting the right amount of sleep is another path to belly fat loss. “Results from a recent study showed that people who were not getting enough sleep had 11 per cent more visceral fat. Aim for seven to nine hours a night,” Lambert concludes.

What are the best exercises to burn belly fat?

There are no exercises that specifically target belly fat. This is because fat loss occurs over the whole body, not in specific areas. Hence, it’s best to focus on the exercises that reduce overall fat most effectively for your ability and fitness level. The best fat loss exercise programmes consist of a healthy combination of both cardio (running, cycling etc) and resistance training (weightlifting, body weight exercises etc).

“If you’ve never exercised before, it would be sustainable to take walks, increasing the tempo, duration and gradient as you increase your fitness. Additionally, add in some resistance exercise, starting with basic functional bodyweight movements using low weight,” advises Fraser.

You can even increase fat burn by introducing small changes to your everyday life, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift and walking short distances instead of driving.

“If you are younger and fitter, and perhaps you just put on a few pounds recently, then high intensity interval training (HIIT) will push you harder and increase the calories you burn. Be realistic about your baseline level and plan your exercise programme accordingly. Consistency and patience is the key.”

While cardio exercises burn more calories and improve cardiovascular health, thereby increasing endurance levels over time, strength training is also important in any fat loss programme because it improves strength and builds muscle and lean muscle burns calories.

Five exercises to help lose belly fat

Best for fit fatties: HIIT

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a type of circuit training that involves short bursts of intense exercise with short rest intervals. HIIT sessions involve both cardio and strength training and are designed to provide maximum calorie burn.

David Lloyd’s version of this exercise, Blaze, for example, uses punch bags, treadmills and a variety of weight apparatus and utilises Myzone fitness monitors, which give real-time detailed data about effort level, heart rate and calorie burn.
This type of exercise, while not recommended for beginners, has a post-workout effect where the body continues to burn calories as it recovers.

Best for intermediates: Functional strength circuits

Like HIIT, functional strength circuits combine several exercises in a specific order completed within a time frame. It is different to HIIT in that it doesn’t include cardio elements and is less intense. However, as functional movements use large groups of muscles working together across your body, these circuits are still challenging. Popular exercises included in functional strength circuits include mountain climbers, burpees, bicycle crunches and kettlebell swings.

Popular functional strength circuits include kettle bellsPopular functional strength circuits include kettle bells

Popular functional strength circuits include kettle bells – Westend61

Best for muscle growth and injury recovery: EMS

Electrical Muscle Stimulation is a high-tech form of training which utilises electric currents to significantly increase the body’s natural muscle contractions. As a result, when combined with guided functional movements, EMS ensures large amounts of muscle fibres are activated when compared to conventional training methods.

Fraser, who specialises in EMS training at Vive Fitness Studios, explains: “EMS offers a whole-body time-efficient workout that doesn’t put strain on joints and can be adapted to the individual. You will see significant improvements to your health and wellness, and it will strengthen up your core area ready for when that belly fat is stripped off and your abs are revealed.”

Best for coordination: Skipping

Jumping rope is a cyclic activity, which means it is performed with a steady, regular cadence. It can also help improve coordination between eyes, feet and hands.

Fitness woman skipping with a jump rope outdoorsFitness woman skipping with a jump rope outdoors

Jump rope can burn more calories than jogging – iStockphoto

Best for stress release: Boxing training

Studies show that boxing training improves body fat percentage, blood pressure, physical functioning and vitality and is also proven to be an effective way to reduce anxiety, depression and other mental conditions. A 2022 study found that non-contact boxing exercises carried out in a high-intensity-interval training group setting, also provided evidence of improved mood, self-esteem, confidence, concentration, metabolic burden, strength and coordination.

Active man punching bag while boxing with male instructor in gymActive man punching bag while boxing with male instructor in gym

Studies show that boxing training improves body fat percentage – Digital Vision

What exercises don’t burn belly fat?

All exercise burns calories to varying degrees and so can help reduce belly fat. However, abdominal exercises will have limited effect if done without any other exercise or diet. Endless reps of sit-ups will not give you a visible six-pack, according to a 2011 study. Stomach muscle exercises will help strengthen abdominal muscles and tone them, but they won’t shift the layer of fat above them.

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