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Abdominal Fat Loss by Phoebe Lim & Chan Weng Chew, ACE Personal Trainers

Abdominal Fat Loss

Phoebe Lim (ACE Certified Personal Trainer)

Chan Weng Chew (ACE Certified Personal Trainer)

There are a hundred and one theories out there on losing abdominal fat and weight management but how do you separate the facts from fallacy? The idea of getting a flat stomach or six-pack from performing a single form of exercise or just taking a supplement is infinitely attractive in comparison to putting in hours of exercise and watching what you eat. The truth is that there is no shortcut to weight management.

Here, we will answer some of the most common questions on abdominal fat.

Is there such a thing as Spot Reduction?

More often than not, you have probably heard someone saying, “I wish to have leaner arms” or “I just want to lose my tummy bulge”. The truth is it is impossible to spot reduce fat from one specific part of the body. Our body works as a single system and there is no way we can work only one limb or target one body part without involving the others. An overall effort is required.

Fat loss occurs systematically, meaning that you can’t control where the fat comes from. When you burn fat for energy, you will draw it from all areas of the body, and the first place you tend to put it on will be the last place it comes off1. In a related study conducted at the University of Massachusetts to debunk the myth of spot reduction, investigators found that if the caloric expenditure is sufficient enough, it will cause fat from the entire body to be reduced, including a particular target area9. This is because exercises that elevate the heart rate will draw upon its fat stores for energy, whether it is cycling, walking, aerobic dance or strength training.

Where and how is fat stored in our body?

Generally, your body decides where to put fat and where to remove it, making spot reduction impossible. The storage space for energy is simply known as fat cells, which differs for different people. The reason some people have “stubborn spots” is because each of us is born with a genetic pattern of fat storage, just as we inherit hair color, eye color and other physical traits from our parents and ancestors1.

Body fat is mostly stored in the midsection – abdomen, hips or buttocks, due to basic biomechanics. This section is the best place to store extra energy because it takes less energy to carry it around as oppose to our limbs, as swinging them around will require extra caloric expenditure. This makes the abdomen the most stable and secure area for storage, as the body is made to be as efficient as possible.

Will abdominal exercises alone help me lose my belly fat?

The answer is NO. You can’t get rid of abdominal fat by solely working on the same muscles as abdominal exercises alone do not burn the fat around your midsection. But if you were to combine it with an aerobic or cardio activity, weight training and a proper diet, you are certainly on the right path to reducing body fat.

The main benefit from abdominal exercises is the strengthening of the stomach muscles which helps to stabilize the core. In some instances the waist can appear smaller because the muscles are stronger which helps to hold the stomach in a lot more firmly1. Practicing abdominal exercises regularly also helps to increase its muscle size, but your layer of flab will not vanish and you may not see your super abdominal muscles because of it, so aerobic exercise is vital to remove the excess fat. The key message here is to burn the layer of fat that is hiding them and it’s going to take more than just those ‘Six Ab Exercises to a Flat Stomach’!

Is dieting a good way for weight loss?

Dieting is good, but if it means starving yourself, then no. Putting yourself in a state of starvation will only cause you to lose all the muscle resources you have. Each of us needs to have a certain degree of muscle mass and bone density to maintain a high metabolism.  The American Council on Exercise suggests a combination of diet and exercise as the best way to lose weight and improve your health7. Let’s look at your body like a car – the substance enabling a car’s engine to start and to run smoothly depends on the amount of fuel available in the tank. Zero petrol means zero start. It is the same theory applicable to our human body. Energy source is derived from our food intake, influenced by the amount of choices we make. According to another study by the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the need to properly adjust the composition of the fuel mix used for energy generation represents constraints beyond the mere need to achieve energy balance, a concept of how weight loss mechanism works6.

Weight maintenance occurs when energy intake and energy expenditure vary about the same mean value, and where protein (4kcal/gram), carbohydrate (4kcal/gram) and fat (9kcal/gram) balance are all maintained as well6. While body weight is usually stable over prolonged periods, a deviation from our diet composition will alter body composition, coupled with the simple mechanism of calories consumed versus calories burned. If more calories are burned than consumed, you lose weight and vice versa. One recommendation suggested by American Council on Exercise is to change diet composition to consist of low-fat food choices and a modest reduction of food portions by 10-15%. Try to be consistent across the week, instead of dieting more strictly on certain days of the week7.

What is the body fat range needed for abdominal muscles to show?

The ideal body fat range for aesthetic purpose ranges from 6-13% for male and 14-20% for female. These put them under the athletic category of body fat classification according to American Council on Exercise5 (refer to table below). Anything below 5% for men and 13% for women is classified as essential fat, being in this range can have a negative effect on physical and physiological health.

Body Fat Percentage Categories

What is the best way to lose my belly fat?

In practice, the best and only way to lose fat in the so-called stubborn areas is through a combination of aerobic (cardio) exercise, weight training and proper dieting (nutrition). Losing body fat is about 50% exercise and 50% nutrition. It is impossible to lose body fat healthily if you do not engage in routine physical activity. What comes off naturally stays off for a longer period of time and will not create a yo-yo effect.

The following shows the detailed explanations on why each element – cardio, weight training and nutrition, plays an equally important role in your weight loss.

(i) Cardio or Aerobic Exercise

Cardiovascular (cardio) exercise is one half of the active solution to burn fat. It helps to speed up your metabolism rate at which your body uses energy, or burns calories. While everyone’s metabolism works the same way, the rate at which it metabolizes nutrients is unique to every individual. A study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that improved fitness through regular physical activity helps to reduce cardiovascular morbidity and mortality for overweight individuals even if they remain overweight. Someone with a high metabolic rate is able to burn calories more efficiently than someone with a slower metabolic rate. Assuming these two people eat roughly the same amount of calories, the individual with a faster metabolic rate “burns up” more of the calories she eats; the person who has the slower metabolism doesn’t burn all the calories taken in, so the extra calories are “saved” and then converted to fat.

Since many factors can affect your metabolism (e.g. age, your condition of health), it can actually slow down without you making any lifestyle changes. The good news is aerobic exercise is an ideal way to increase your metabolism and combat resulting weight gain.

 

(ii) Strength Training

A misconception that many people have is to just do cardio exercise to lose weight. While cardio exercise is necessary, it is only part of the entire picture.  You need to understand how your body utilizes calories. It is the lean body mass, i.e. the muscles that burn calories 24/74. This means the more muscles you have, the more energy (calories) your body will utilize. By engaging in weight training, you will end up burning fat for hours after your exercise session.

A complete body fat loss exercise program should always include cardio exercise and weight training for every muscle group. It is important to train the entire body. Working one muscle group to the exclusion of others is a common cause of muscular imbalance1. Strength training will be able to maintain and build the muscle mass that you already have underneath your body fat while you are in the process of losing the fat. This will leave you with a greater proportion of lean body mass to body fat, meaning that you will be slimmer, yet having the muscles that you had when you were overweight4.

 

(iii) Nutrition

In addition to exercise, to lose weight you will need to educate yourself about nutrition. Learn what intakes are bad and what are good. Start spreading your calories into 4-6 smaller portions instead of 2-3 big ones so you do not overeat in one feeding. You should eat enough to accommodate your activity level and pick healthier choices. A healthy body will do better exercise, burn more calories and increase muscle, which in turn will burn more calories all day long.

Below lists the nutritional guidelines from American Council on Exercise for body fat loss8.

1.       Reduce your portion sizes by 10 to 15% each time you prepare or order a meal.

2.       Avoid skipping breakfast.

3.       Consume a variety of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and non-fat or low-fat dairy products to get the nutrients your body needs.

4.       Aim for two or three servings of dairy products daily (e.g., milk, cheeses, yogurt).

5.       Select low-fat foods and avoid trans fats. Limit your total fat intake to 20 to 35% of daily calories, with no more than 7% of your total calories coming from saturated fats.

6.       Limit your salt intake.

7.       Limit alcohol beverage intake as it contains seven “empty” calories per gram. These calories don’t provide you with any of the essential nutrients you need to aid weight loss or to build that muscle mass you desire.

Maintaining healthy hydration is also important as water is one of the most essential components of the human body. Water helps to regulate the body’s temperature, cushions and protects vital organs and aids the digestive system. Water not only composes 75% of all muscle tissue and about 10% of fatty tissue, but it also acts within each cell to transport nutrients and dispel waste10.

In summary, losing body fat is an active process. Do not be tricked by the simplest myth known to you. Nothing is going to happen to you automatically, and you can’t expect to lose body fat using the least amount of time or money or effort. Losing abdominal fat is not easy as it requires a significant investment of time, effort and will power to get it going. Patience, consistency, commitment and dedication coupled with a good understanding of how our body system works are the key components to a sustainable workout goal.

References

1 http://www.weightlossforall.com/abdominal-fat.htm

2 http://www.naturalnews.com/z006981_abdominal_fat_body.html

3 http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_easiest_way_to_get_rid_of_lower_stamach_fat.html

4 http://www.naturalnews.com/z011285_weight_loss_strength_training.html

5 http://www.acefitness.org/blog/112/what-are0the-guidelines-for-percentage-of-body-fat-loss.html

6 Flatt, J. P. (1987), The Difference in the Storage Capacities for Carbohydrate and for Fat, and Its Implications in the Regulation of Body Weight. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 499: 104–123. Doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1987.tb36202.x

7 American Council on Exercise, ‘Weight Loss; Diet vs. Exercise’, Weight Management, ACE Fit Facts

8 American Council on Exercise, ‘Trimming off the Fat’, Weight Management, ACE Fit Facts

9 Bryant, Cedric X., ACE Fitness Matters, January/February 2004

10 American Council on Exercise, ‘Healthy Hydration’, Nutrition and Supplements, ACE Fit Facts

11 McBride, Judy (2001), Lift Weights to Lift Aging Metabolism, Lower Weight Gain. News from the USDA. Agricultural Research Service