Tried everything to shift or get rid of that belly, gut, spare tyre or whatever else is your nickname for that extra fat carried on your stomach? (No gimmicks, subscription fees, pills, strict diets or exercise equipment sold here!) This post describes the cause of our much hated belly fat and how to reduce or prevent it!
There is a big debate on whether or not doing 100 sit ups every day will give you that flat toned stomach so many of us strongly desire. This is called ‘spot reduction’, a lot of people believe that by training and exercising specific areas of the body like the stomach, bum and legs will help reduce fat in those target areas. I write this out of experience, when I was at my last years at school I was never ‘fat’ but I was obsessed with having a flat stomach. I’d sit all day everyday tensing my stomach and I’d do 100 sit ups every night. It never really looked smaller or flatter but I had a great posture and beat everyone (including the boys) during a sit up bleep test! So here is my attempt to look into this for you! Again this post aims at looking at the target area, our stomach/abdominals.
Firstly let’s look at what causes our wobbly bellies!
There are two types of abdominal fat-visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Both kinds are caused by excessive caloric intake and/or lack of activity. The table below compares the two:
|Visceral fat||Subcutaneous fat
|Surrounds abdominal organs||In-between the skin and the abdominal wall (hint to remember= sub is below!)|
|Cannot be liposuctioned||Can be liposuctioned
|Cannot see or grab it (I remember it as ‘inVISible’!)||Can grab it! Used to test total body fat by the use of skin calipers|
|Can easily be reduced
|Hard to get rid of (the ‘stubborn’ fat)|
|You can be thin but still have a lot of this type of fat||This type of fat is visible and resides all over|
|Too much of this type of fat can linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, dementia (probably related to its proximity to the portal vein)||Too much of this type of fat is not necessarily hazardous to your health (however any excess of fat of any kind is unlikely to be health promoting)|
Why do we need this fat?
Before you totally write off fat and cut it out of your diet with ‘low fat’ products due to its weight gaining reputation; fat is an essential macronutrient for our bodies especially for our survival!
- Fat stores excess calories in a safe way so when you are hungry it mobilizes fat stores (regulating hunger).
- Fat releases hormones that control metabolism (chemical processes used to maintain the living state of cells and the organism.)
- Fat is another energy source like Carbohydrate and Protein.
- Fat helps absorb certain vitamins like A,D, E, K and Carotenoids)
- Fat provides lubrication around our joints or even cushioning for our organs
- Fat maintains cell membranes
We know the causes of our abdominal fat but without the use of costly scans by medics, it is difficult to know which of your belly fat is subcutaneous or visceral. The question now is can lots of sit ups get rid of our abdominal fat?
The debating arguments are on ‘Spot Reduction.’
The main study which agrees on the use of spot reduction was by Stallknecht, Dela and Helge (2007). They measured and compared the amount of lipolysis (in simple terms-the breakdown of fat) and the amount of blood flow to subcutaneous fat cells in exercising and resting thighs. Blood flow increased in the working leg as well as the amount of lipolysis. So in basic terms the study found that body fat is used from the area being trained.
However many other studies (see below) found no decrease of fat by doing spot reduction exercises. For example Gwinup and Chelvam (1971) compared the thickness of subcutaneous fat of tennis player’s arms to a control group. This study found no difference in the amount of fat between the arms receiving more exercise as compared to the arms receiving less exercise. Kostek et al (2007) compared fat measurements in the arm before and after 12 weeks of resistance training. Using skin fold measurements there were small decreases in trained arms to untrained arms however MRI scans proved “spot reduction does not occur as a result of resistance training.” Katch et al (1984) had participants completing 5004 sit ups over 27 days. However this did not reduce fat cell size or subcutaneous fat amount in the abdominal region, but stated, “Changes in fat cell size may occur where total body composition is reduced.” Vispute et al (2011) compared a group of healthy adults who carried out abdominal workouts for 6 weeks to a control group who received no intervention. They found no reduction in abdominal subcutaneous fat and other measures of body composition; however their muscular endurance significantly improved.
I believe advertisers have jumped on the bandwagon and exploit this ‘myth’ of spot reduction. Pushing products like ab machines or specific ‘belly busting workouts!’ Some people may testify to it working for them; however it may be that they have experienced muscle growth causing a firming or shaping effect. Larger muscles are more easily seen through subcutaneous fat which gives an illusion of your belly shrinking when it has not (or at least the amount of fat hasn’t reduced). Spot reduction will develop muscle strength and endurance; however it does not burn the fat! There is a chance that doing spot reduction compared to not doing anything, you are using more calories than you do normally which may incur slight weight loss. Or it could be due to the fact that people who have more or larger muscles burn more calories (again spot reduction can increase muscle size). Spot reduction may get more blood working to that area and may incur more lipolysis but it does not reduce fat in that area! As mentioned earlier I used to do 100 sit ups a night as well as oblique twists, but the only way I got rid of my belly fat was going running, playing football, playing rounders…every sport I could play at school I did and because of that I had a very toned stomach (a lot more toned than it is now)!
So it’s clear that doing lots of sit ups won’t budge the belly bulge. Yes it will tighten and strengthen the abdominal muscles but won’t get rid of the fat. Let’s look at what CAN help reduce our fat.
- Don’t just exercise one body part- you won’t get fat loss just in that one area. A great quote from McGrath(2013) “You can try to cook a turkey with a candle, or you could use the oven.” When exercising one body part, the muscle in that area is what’s working, not the fat in that area. So do total body workouts instead of OR alongside specific muscle group exercises.
- Cardio exercise burns more calories- If able try doing high intensity interval training (very high intensity is not recommended for beginners, if you are obese or have heart or circulatory problems). For example try doing 1 minute of hard intensity exercise like fast running, burpees, uphill walking (whatever is hard to you!) followed by 40 seconds rest or a lower intensity such as a slow walk, slow jog or dynamic stretching. Repeat this as many times as possible within 20-40 minutes. I did the ‘Insanity’ workout- I highly recommend this! I will write another post on high intensity workouts soon with better and more detailed examples.
- Do strength training as well as cardio- muscle uses more calories, so by building yor muscle not only will you be stronger more toned, reduce your fat mass but your also increasing your metabolic rate.
- Watch what goes in your body- reduce your calories by reducing what goes in (this includes drinks) or by increasing what goes out (exercise more!) By reducing your food intake by 3,500 calories a week (300-500 a day) you can achieve 1-2lbs a week of weight loss. Eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruit (a moderate amount-watch your portion control!) Eat complex carbohydrates and lean protein.
- Eat the right fat- watching what you eat and exercising regularly can help you lose weight and reduce your fat mass, but you can still have a lot of visceral fat. So when you do eat your 30% recommended fat intake, make sure its mono or polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats or trans fats. On nutrition labels try to make sure saturated fat is 3g or less per 100g as this is a low amount. Watch out, as eating ‘low fat’ products may not be necessarily better as they are higher in sugar (which too much of is then converted to fat) but also higher in calories!
- No fat loss drugs! There is still a lot of research into drug treatments that target abdominal fat, or at least nothing that is FDA approved just yet! When there is I’ll let you know!
- Fat loss is not area specific- Sorry to tell you the truth but we have genetic coding which tells us where we will store fat. So doing total body workouts will help you lose fat mass but over the entire body not specific areas you desire.
Gwinup (1971) – http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=685223
Katch et al (1984) – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02701367.1984.10609359#.VB8KdZRdVc0
Kostec et al (2007) http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/17596787
Stallknecht, Dela and Helge (2007)- http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/292/2/E394
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