Updated: Jan 24
"An apple a day keeps the doctor away", as the saying goes. What about a daily exercise routine? It too can protect health and limit visits to a doctor to seek treatment for a that are preventable.
Working out at a gym or joining an aerobics class are great ways to exercise. But these are not the only options we have. There are many others that you can do on your own, whether outside at a local park, in your office during a short break, or even in the comfort of your home! Key to effective exercise at any age but especially as we age, is to combine three elements in your exercise routine: moving, stretching, and breathing. Going for a walk during lunch break, climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walking over to a colleague’s desk instead of sending a text message, or if you are more ambitious, doing yoga along with your favorite YouTube video (and there are MANY to choose from!) are examples of simple and effective ways to keep on the move and get exercise throughout the day.
Exercising can help in many different ways, including building muscles, lowering stress levels, and even balancing hormones. The good news is that all three can also contribute to burning off excess belly fat. Let’s briefly review all three, and then focus on how exercise can reduce belly fat. I include some practical ways to develop a realistic exercise routine that brings results!
Building muscles: To develop your muscles requires incorporating some resistance training, such as lifting weights or doing squats, for example. The weights can be adjusted based on individual strength level, and as we become more fit, we can increase the resistance that the body can withstand. Unfortunately, “…only 6 percent of adults do the recommended minimum amount of at least two muscle-strengthening workouts each week.” Benefits of building your muscles are many, such as increasing bone density and strength and reducing the risk of osteoporosis; improving balance, mobility and posture; and of course, weight loss since muscles burn calories, even when the body is resting (Better Health Channel).
Lowering stress: When exercising regularly, stress levels can be lowered by increasing production of endorphins (the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters) and by distracting our attention from the day's problems, instead concentrating on the body's movements. As I discuss in Chapter 7 of my book, Belly Fat in Midlife, when stress levels are constantly elevated, the stress hormone, cortisol can contribute to weight gain, and an expanded waistline.
Balancing your hormones: Hormones are “direct biochemical messages that regulate everything from your sex drive to your metabolism, mood, sleep, and fertility”. When your hormones are out of balance, they give your body mixed signals that impact how it functions and how you feel. In particular, there are five hormones influenced by exercise: irisin, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and the human growth hormone. The first two – irisin and cortisol –are especially important to highlight because when they are kept in balance, they allow us to reap the benefits of exercise most directly, which includes the ability to achieve and maintain a healthy weight (Held, 2017).
What if exercise does not seem to be burning belly fat?
There are two main types of body fat: subcutaneous and visceral (Kubala 2021). Subcutaneous fat is located between the skin and the outer abdominal wall, and visceral fat accumulates in the abdomen, near your liver, stomach and intestines. Subcutaneous, is necessary since it stores energy and supports other core body functions (Gotter 2021; Harvard Health Publishing 2021). Even though there is generally less visceral fat in the body, it is the most difficult to lose. Yet, it is the one we need to focus on in order to lose unwanted belly fat.
Research establishes the link between the right exercise and weight and fat loss. In one study, evidence from randomized trials show that when measuring “abdominal fat in overweight and obese subjects who are middle- to older-aged, moderate to high intensity exercise of at least eight weeks duration is effective for reducing abdominal fat” (Kay and Singh, June 2006). Findings in another study offer similar results, showing “the efficacy of short-term, high-intensity aerobic exercise training for the reduction of visceral fat in elderly, overweight adults” (Coker 2009).
Not all exercises achieve the same results, however. Research has also shown that exercise that focuses on only one area of the body (the belly for example), is less efficacious than a more varied exercise routine. In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “Twenty-four healthy, sedentary participants (14 men and 10 women), between 18 and 40 years, were randomly assigned to [a]…control group (CG) or abdominal exercise group (AG)”. The researchers concluded that “….abdominal exercise training was effective to increase abdominal strength but was not effective to decrease various measures of abdominal fat”. They conclude that “abdominal exercise alone is not sufficient to reduce waistline or subcutaneous abdominal fat. It is likely necessary to include aerobic exercise along with reducing energy intake to have more favorable changes in body fat percentage” (Vispute 2011).
Diversity is key
With so many exercise options, there is no reason to limit ourselves to those that are costly or unrealistic. Finding those that work for you and integrating them in daily exercise routines consistently are likely to boost overall balance. This is especially important for those who are accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle. It’s just a matter of priorities, a mindset shift and conviction that the benefits of exercise are worth the time and effort we need to put into it. It requires understanding that without exercise, our health is at risk.
Surely, we can all carve out 15 minutes a day even on a very busy day, to exercise. “Incorporating just 15 minutes of moderate exercise — such as walking one mile — on a daily basis will burn up to 100 extra calories (assuming you don’t consume excess calories in your diet afterwards). Burning 700 calories a week can equal 10 lbs. of weight loss over the course of a year” (Kerr 2022).
More intensive aerobic or cardiovascular exercises are even more effective since they get the heart rate up and the blood pumping. And this burns off even more of those excess calories! In addition to brisk walking, this may also include jogging, cycling, rowing, swimming, and dancing. If a gym membership is possible, working out on fitness machines such as treadmills, ellipticals, or stair steppers are great options as well (Kerr 2022 and WebMD 2022).
Rigorous aerobic exercise, combined with the resistance training mentioned earlier, is a great way to stay in shape and lose some of those unwanted pounds that have accumulated around the belly. Adding some yoga exercises that teach us best breathing and stretching techniques round out a comprehensive and effective exercise routine for weight loss and healthy living in general.
In Chapter 6 of my book Belly Fat in Midlife: Practical Steps to Revitalize Your Changing Body, I share my midlife journey from a sedentary lifestyle stuck behind a desk on a computer to a new routine that ring-fenced time for me to exercise nearly every day. I stopped coming up with excuses. The result? More energy and less weight as . Targeted and strategic exercise has contributed to building muscles, managing stress, more energy, hormone balance, better sleep , less weight and a decrease in belly fat. In fact, I slimmed down from a size 14 to 4.
There is no better time to establish an exercise routine than now. As you incorporate regular and diversified exercise in your daily routine, you feel healthier and more balanced. Weight and fat loss will follow. You have a lot to gain from it and very little, if anything, to lose. Try it. You will not be disappointed!
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Belly Fat in Midlife: Practical Steps to Revitalize Your Changing Body, by Rose M. Kadende-Kaiser. Season of Health, Burlington, North Carolina. 2020.
“Visceral Fat”, by Ana Gotter. January 31, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/visceral-fat. Accessed December 7, 2022.
“Top Exercises for Belly Fat”, by WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/top-exercises-belly-fat#1. Accessed December 4, 2022.
“The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat”, by Sachin S. Vispute, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September 2011. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2011/09000/the_effect_of_abdominal_exercise_on_abdominal_fat.27.aspx#:~:text=Aerobic%20exercise%20has%20been%20shown,weight%20(7%2C23). Accessed December 4, 2022.
“Influence of Exercise Intensity on Abdominal Fat and Adiponectin in Elderly Adults” by Robert H. Coker, et al. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. August 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135883/. Accessed December 4, 2022.
“Taking aim at belly fat”, by Harvard Health Publishing. April 12, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat. Accessed December 4, 2022.
“The influence of physical activity on abdominal fat: A systematic review of the literature”, by Shelley Kay and Maria Fiatarone Singh. Obesity Reviews. June 2006. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7150557_The_influence_of_physical_activity_on_abdominal_fat_A_systematic_review_of_the_literature. Accessed December 4, 2022.
“Exercise and Weight Loss”, by Michael Kerr. January 19, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-and-weight-loss
“The 2 Types of Belly Fat and How to Lose It”, by Jillian Kubala. August 18, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/types-of-belly-fat. Accessed December 4, 2022.
“How to Get Strong”, by Anahad O'Connor. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-build-muscle-strength. Accessed December 7, 2022.
“Resistance training – health benefits” by Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/resistance-training-health-benefits#health-benefits-of-resistance-training. Accessed December 7, 2022.
“Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress” by Mayo Clinic Staff. August 3, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469. Accessed December 7, 2022.
“The 5 Hormones Every Active Woman Needs to Know About”, by Elaine Held. Well + Good.
March 13, 2017. https://www.wellandgood.com/how-exercise-affects-hormones-overall-health/. Accessed December 7, 2022.