How to Flatten Your Belly

November 5, 2012 No Comments by Scott Isaacs, M.D.

If a genie gave you the chance to change one thing about your body, what would you wish for? If you’d ask for a flatter belly, you’ve got plenty of company—72% of women ages 45 to 64 named the abs the body part they felt most insecure about, according to a recent survey by the research firm Mintel. It’s no wonder. The more birthday candles you blow out, the more difficult it is to keep belly fat at bay.

In your youth, estrogen surges encourage your body to store protective fat in the hips and buttocks to prepare for pregnancy. As estrogen levels begin dropping in your 40s and 50s, lower-body fat pulls up stakes and resettles right where you don’t want it: on your stomach.

“The body stores fat in the belly because it can access and use that fat quickly for energy, which was critical hundreds of years ago, when the body was fine-tuned for periods of starvation,” says Marie Savard, MD, a women’s health physician in Philadelphia and the author of The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness.

Another belly inflator: “Starting around age 30, sedentary women lose 5 to 7 pounds of muscle every decade,” says Wayne Westcott, PhD, a Prevention advisory board member and director of fitness research at Quincy College in Massachusetts. “This lowers your metabolic rate by 2 to 4% every 10 years, causing you to slowly pack on weight even if you’re not eating more calories.”

A bigger belly not only affects your wardrobe, it also sets you up for health problems. Underneath the subcutaneous fat (the muffin top you can grab with your hand) lies more harmful visceral fat, which builds up around your organs and pushes against your abdominal wall.

“Visceral fat produces chemicals that create harmful inflammation in the body, increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer,” says Scott Isaacs, MD, a clinical instructor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and the author of Hormonal Balance. The good news: Whittling your waist a mere 2 inches is enough to take you out of the danger zone.

Follow our plan for a strong, slim, and healthy middle in your 40s, 50s, and 60s. Each decade builds on the one before, so you’ll have an arsenal of strategies by the time you reach your 60s. Starting the plan midway? Review the other decades and build to where you need to be. You could see results in as few as 2 weeks!

YOUR 40s

There’s a good chance you’re starting to notice a little extra belly flab. That’s because as you begin perimenopause, estrogen levels start to drop—and your metabolism dips too if you don’t exercise regularly. Stress may also contribute, as tension triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which causes your body to store more visceral fat.

Big Belly Health Risks: Low Bone Density

A bigger-than-ideal belly puts you at greater risk of osteoporosis, according to a study in the journal Bone. “High visceral fat is associated with decreased levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1, which are both important for bone health,” says Miriam A. Bredella, MD, lead study author and associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School.

Best Belly-Flattening Strategies

•Make Protein a Priority Protein helps prevent muscle loss, so to stem the depletion and keep your metabolism humming, shoot for 0.45 g of protein per pound of body weight daily, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, the author of Doctor’s Detox Diet. If you weigh 140 pounds, that’s about 63 g.

•Kick Up Your Cardio High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is best at blasting belly fat. Research has shown that women who did 20 minutes of HIIT 3 times a week burned more fat than women who exercised at a moderate pace for 40 minutes 3 times a week. To reap the benefits, progress to 25 minutes of HIIT 3 to 6 days a week. Alternate between 2 or 3 minutes at a challenging pace and 1 minute at a moderate pace.

•Shrink Your Waist With Weights To slow muscle loss, tone your major muscle groups 2 or 3 times a week. Start by performing 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise, using 8-to 15-pound dumbbells.

•Limit Libations Nobody’s saying you have to be a teetotaler, but too much alcohol stimulates cortisol production, Dr. Isaacs says. Limit servings and try to avoid beer because of its belly-fat-building carbohydrates.

YOUR 50s

The big drop in estrogen during menopause makes your midsection become rounder. In fact, within the first few years after menopause, women gain about 10 pounds, most of which goes straight to the waistline. Plus, “the decrease in sex hormones results in more easily disturbed sleep for many women,” says Lisa Shives, MD, medical director of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, IL. Besides making you more tired, lack of sleep causes hormone imbalances that can increase your appetite.

Big-Belly Healthy Risks: Insulin Resistance

As you move into your 50s, you’re at greater risk of developing insulin resistance, a condition that causes the body to produce more insulin than it should, Dr. Isaacs says. The excess causes you to store more fat and increases your appetite. The double whammy: Too much belly fat further ups your risk of insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

Best Belly-Flattening Strategies

•Wipe Out Wheat “One slice of whole wheat bread increases blood sugar more than 1 tablespoon of sugar does,” says William Davis, MD, a preventive cardiologist in Milwaukee and the author of Wheat Belly. That blast of sugar prompts your body to release insulin, setting the stage for increased storage of visceral fat. When you remove wheat from your diet, your appetite drops dramatically and you begin losing belly fat, Dr. Davis says.

•Pump Up Protein To offset age-related muscle loss, increase protein in your diet as you age, Dr. Gerbstadt says. In your 50s, shoot for 0.5 g for every pound of body weight. A 140-pound woman should consume 70 g daily.

•Be Smart About Sleep With your hormones working against you now, it’s more imperative than ever to develop proper sleep hygiene, which includes keeping your bedroom cool and dark, as well as banishing anyone—snoring husbands, pets—who might disturb you.

•Fine-tune Your Fitness Have a few more aches? Swap 2 of the HIIT walks you did in your 40s with moderate-paced walks, logging at least 5 sweat sessions weekly. To guard against metabolism-slowing muscle loss, continue to do 2 strength workouts each week.

YOUR 60s

Although your estrogen levels may be the same as they were in your 50s, you’re still losing muscle due to aging. That further slows your metabolism, which is why belly fat continues to be an issue. Osteoporosis could also be making your tummy appear rounder. “As you lose bone mass, you become shorter,” Dr. Savard says. Because there’s no place for your organs to go, your abdomen protrudes.

Big-Belly Health Risks: Increased Inflammation and Knee Pain

While the extra candles on your birthday cake are cause for celebration, in this decade, belly fat may trigger greater amounts of inflammation in your body, further increasing your risks of heart disease and diabetes. And too much weight around your belly puts extra stress on your joints, often leading to knee pain that can limit activity.

Best Belly-Flattening Strategies

•Keep Your Sneakers Handy Just as you did in your 50s, continue to walk at least 5 days a week, aiming for 2 or 3 HIIT power walks and 2 longer, moderate strolls. If you’re having trouble increasing your pace, hit the hills to get your heart pumping.

•Stay Strong In your 60s, strength training becomes even more crucial for keeping your metabolism humming, as well as for maintaining bone density. Just don’t switch to wimpy weights. “You might need to reduce the weight slightly, but it shouldn’t be significant,” says Irene Lewis-McCormick, IDEA fitness expert and a personal trainer in Des Moines, IA.

•Be a Hottie A regular yoga practice will strengthen your core, but if you can tolerate it, try hot yoga, which is done in a heated studio. As you age, “collagen breakdown makes belly skin look saggy, even if you have good muscle tone,” Lewis-McCormick says. “Hot yoga releases toxins, which helps maintain skin elasticity.”

•Add a Protein Power Snack Make one more adjustment to your protein needs, increasing to 0.55 g per pound of body weight. A 140-pound woman should consume around 77 g daily.

The 10-Pound Advantage

Don’t interpret this as permission to park yourself on the couch or visit the drive-through daily, but being a little overweight may not be such a bad thing, especially when you’re older. After evaluating data from more than 9,000 adults ages 70 to 75, researchers found that overweight individuals (those who had a BMI of 25 to 29.9) had the lowest mortality rate—13% lower, in fact, than normal-weight individuals. “Being overweight when you’re older may provide a nutritional reserve or buffer when you get sick,” says study coauthor Leon Flicker, PhD, of the Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing.

Slim Your Belly, Brighten Your Mood

Parting with a little belly blubber is not only good for your health and confidence but can also give you a mental boost. “Clients often tell me that they feel happier after losing weight,” says Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Pittsburgh. Two possible reasons: Exercise stimulates feel-good hormones that can last up to 12 hours, and the healthier you are, the less sick you are, which allows you to be more productive.

From: Get a Flatter Belly At Any Age (Prevention, November 2012)

By Karen Asp


For more information, please read my books Beat Overeating Now!: Take Control of Your Hunger Hormones to Lose Weight Fast and Hormonal Balance: How to Lose Weight by Understanding Your Hormones and Metabolism or visit my Facebook page.


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