this belly fat is stubborn!
February 19, 2012 1:57 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to get rid of belly fat, for a woman? Diet or exercise? What kind of exercise?

I am late 20's, female, healthy, with an average diet, and my weight is right on the edge of average/overweight. I am generally OK with my size, since my body just seems to like being at this weight, no matter how much or little I work out or eat. I am very active, and I am pretty strong and in good shape. Because of my hobbies (climbing, yoga, zumba, running, although not as frequently as I should), I have a lot of muscle, and the only thing I would like to change is that I have a lot of fat on my stomach, hiding my potential awesome 6-pack. It might be genetic, because my mom, who is very thin and not anywhere near being overweight, also has the same cellulite-looking layer of fat on her stomach. Before I give up and blame genetics, I would like to try to somehow burn off the fat. How?

I've read on metafilter that exercise doesn't help you lose weight, only diet does. Should I eat less fat? Less carbs? Or eat less in general? That would be hard, especially since I am about to train for a half marathon, but I can try, if that would help. Btw, even training for and running a marathon this past summer didn't get rid of any of the fat.

I've also read that slow cardio is most effective for getting rid of fat, and I probably need to lower my overall body fat % in order to help with my belly situation.

I've also read that weight training and building muscle is best for increasing your metabolism to burn fat. But I already climb and do sit ups/crunches, along with pullups and pushups twice a week, and do yoga twice a week. I feel like that's enough strength/weight exercise, I already feel myself getting stronger constantly, with no improvements in the belly fat situation, and I've been doing all this for years.

What combination of the above will be the most effective? Or what else am I missing? I know targeting abs and doing crunches doesn't work - I can see that I have ab muscles, they are just underneath the fat.

I am asking because obviously my active lifestyle isn't doing anything, so I need to figure out if I can tweak it somehow, or just accept the fat and just continue my healthy lifestyle.
posted by to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Exercise is fantastic for your heart and muscles and bones and overall health. To lose fat, you generally have to decrease calories (fat is stored from excess calories in one form or another).

Crunches aren't a significant muscle-building exercise, and pullups and pushups, while great for your arms and chest and back, are a bit limited. The most muscle one can build is generally in the lower body, so you might want to add squats and lunges to that routine. It'll certainly help with the running, as more muscle in the legs = more power in your runs.

It's really tough for a lot of women to have a six-pack, because it requires such a lot amount of body fat, and women are generally more prone to having more fat on them in order to sustain another human being inside of them occasionally. However, if you want to attempt to get "cut," then you will have to decrease calories.

But if you're feeling healthy and happy with the way you are except for this one cosmetic thing you don't like, I'd say keep doing the healthy thing, because health is most important. Oh, but add squats. Squats will change your life, honestly.
posted by xingcat at 2:04 AM on February 19, 2012

(Such a little amount of body fat, not such a lot in the six-pack discussion.)
posted by xingcat at 2:05 AM on February 19, 2012

I have a round pot belly when I'm underweight, overweight (and I've tried out quite a range) and inbetween. That is how and where I store my fat and nothing will ever change that distribution. I will also never have a bitchin' round arse. I get that.

If you are training for performance specific goals enjoy being healthy and strong and stop tilting at windmills.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 2:15 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Squats? I can do more squats, why not! Does utkatasana, which makes me hate life for those moments, count?

I know sit ups/push ups/pull ups are limited, they are just extra exercises I do after climbing for hours, which *is* a full body weight lifting exercise that doesn't just focus on specific muscles, but makes everything sore the next day, even tiny muscles that you didn't know existed.

Also just to clarify, I know I will probably never have a six-pack, I just want to reduce the fat and cellulite on my stomach. So far, reducing calories seems like reasonable advice.

OK, no more thread-sitting! I thank you in advance for your advice.
posted by at 2:33 AM on February 19, 2012

I have a very muscular build, but I also have a tendency to carry lots of fat. My personal observations from life:
  • Having a lot of muscle somewhere in no way stops you having fat there too. Fat and muscle will happily co-exist. So sit ups will not remove belly fat. Biceps curl will not remove flab from an arm.
  • The only way I've ever looked less fat and more muscular is by reducing intake, not by increasing exercise.
  • Specifically I need to drop my calorie intake to at least 1000 below "normal" for my age/weight/build before I see results, and I need to make almost all the savings from carbohydrates.
  • Remain active while dieting to stop yourself losing too much lean mass. Small numbers of reps of heavy weights work best for me. Specifically I found 3 sets of 8 reps of "the heaviest I could manage without risk of injury" worked well.
  • When you see someone you think looks really buff or toned you're noticing a low body fat percentage, not a high muscle mass. (Normally, more extreme "weightlifters" will be both)
  • If your problem is your tummy - are you bloated or fat? Fat does NOT fluctuate on a day by day basis. If you look more or less "fat" over short time frames you need to look at your recent diet, salt and water intake.
Everyone has very different bodies, and they behave differently when you diet. The industry likes to sell one product (book, supplement, whatever) to the whole market so they pretend one solution will work for everyone. This is gibberish. I find that my body desperately tries to reduce its usage in response to lowered input (I feel cold, I get sluggish and tired) rather than using fat reserves. Other people have very different experiences. So the only way to make sense of it is to keep careful records (weigh your food, record your exercise) and weigh yourself once a week (and once only, same time and day every week). Do what works for you.

I've never had cellulite so can't comment on that.

tl;dr; - I can replace every grain in my diet (pasta, bread etc) and all root vegetables (potato etc) with an equal amount of something green and leafy (steamed broccoli, cabbage etc) and within 2 months I look a LOT slimmer and a LOT more muscular. YMMV.
posted by samworm at 3:05 AM on February 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Utkatasana is more about endurance than strength, so may not help you build much muscle. I squat 100kg at the gym, but I can barely hold utkatasana for half as long as other women at yoga. Try doing the actual powerlifting squat with as heavy a weight as you can manage for 3 sets of 10 on the days you do your pull ups and press ups. It will help you with your climbing too, btw.

As for reducing "belly fat", I have no other suggestions besides what people have said above, but wanted to nth that it might not be fat so much as bloat (which lowering carb intake helps with for some people). But honestly, if you are running marathons, please don't try to diet by reducing calories drastically . It will harm your ability to exercise to your full potential, and the exercise is doing you so much more good than reducing fat would.
posted by lollusc at 3:26 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do more ab exercises, like planks, scissors, simple leg lifts followed by holding your feet 6 inches off the ground just when you think you can't stand it anymore, having a leg up and "climbing" it to attempt to touch your toes, bicycles, crossing and holding your legs up and then "rowing" back and forth (twisting your body from side to side and touching the floor with both hands), crunches with a machine (start small; make sure you use your abs and not your back/upper arms), and running/high powered walking (can include hiking steep climbs).

Also, drink less soda. I -was- fairly cut until I started drinking soda more recently. Mind you, I drank sweet tea about once a day, but then subbed that for soda....suddenly, stomach flab. Kind of scary, actually.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:05 AM on February 19, 2012

Nthing everything everyone else said about women tending to retain fat in the belly, carb reduction helping with that somewhat, and powerlifting squats changing your life.

Also, if you're on hormonal birth control, your abs will likely be very hard to bring out of hiding; I went off the pill for a few months a while ago and I had a surprise four-pack pop out, only to hide again once I resumed HBC, despite my body fat percentage being very low and being quite fit.
posted by gone2croatan at 5:53 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

One possible idea: Do you have excessive anterior pelvic tilt? Standing with this poor posture can sometimes jut out your belly and make you look like you have a bit of fat there even when you don't. Here's a Reddit post on various exercises and stretches you can do to correct it. It seems to have been helpful to redditors with this postural defect.

Barring that, the usual advice applies: Losing weight is almost entirely diet, you can't spot-treat weight loss, doing ab-work doesn't give you a six pack (only low body fat %), etc.
posted by losvedir at 6:01 AM on February 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

You cannot spot-train to lose fat from a specific area of your body. You can, however, build muscle in a specific area, which may help with definition; leg raises, crunches, and squats can help with your abdominals. It is important to note that the human body is an integrated system, and you should be striving for both strength and cardiovascular endurance; when you achieve those, you will maximize your appearance (at least in terms of having defined muscles) in a sustainable way.

Ultimately, you need to be consuming fewer calories, or burning more via exercise than you take in. Diet is generally more important than exercise for losing weight, but it isn't sufficient on its own. Cardio (not "slow" or "fast", just cardio that gets your heart rate up for 30-45 minutes, 2-3x/ week) will help you to burn more calories efficiently. Combined with muscle, you are apt to see the results you want over time.
posted by ellF at 6:20 AM on February 19, 2012

I have arthritis and have had knee surgeries, so I squatted much lighter than most women do, but powerlifting squats are just phenomenal for your body in general. That said, I saw the biggest difference in my midsection from deadlifting. I'd finish a heavy set and my belly would just be aching from all the effort of keeping my back straight. Deadlifts are also GREAT for getting teh feelings out.

It's also surprising how much energy you use heavy lifting.

Good luck!
posted by nerdfish at 7:26 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can lose an inch of belly fat in less than a week by cutting sugar, flour and soda out of my diet, and reducing salt. These are things that bloat me. I am very thin and when I do not watch what I eat, I can look like I'm well into my second tri-mester of pregnancy.

Avoid all fake sugars. These are chemicals that your body doesn't know what to do with.

Cut out bread.

No soda, no beer either, as it contains yeast.

Find what works for you and then tell your mom. She will thank you for it.
posted by myselfasme at 7:33 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

myselfasme is right, no bread no sugar. It sucks and it works; it shouldn't be easy. Good luck.
posted by ibakecake at 7:54 AM on February 19, 2012

There probably is a genetic component, but that's not the whole story. It's really hard to have a low enough body fat percentage to sport a six pack all the time (especially for women). You would need to burn more calories than you consume. More exercise, fewer calories. Honestly, it sounds like you are very healthy right now, and to get to six pack land, you might have to stop being so healthy and even then might not be able to maintain it.

Given your exercise habits, I think that food would be the way to go... but you need to have the energy to run your marathon, so really, are you in a position to do that?
posted by J. Wilson at 8:16 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy this blog post by Mefi's own melissam.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exercise will make what you've got under the fat look better, but diet is going to take care of the fat. You need to eat less calories than you're burning. Stomach-specific exercises will not target belly fat. Spot reduction is a myth. Try cutting back on carbs, a lot of people find that an easier way of losing weight because the focus on protein and fat means you get full quicker with less calories.
posted by Anonymous at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2012

Drop dairy, it adds to the belly fat and reduce grains
posted by pakora1 at 9:16 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The yoga pose utkatasana could be helpful if when you are in it you remember to compress the abdominal wall.

It is very easy to hang out going oh oh oh ow my thighs and letting them and the glutes do all the work while letting the abdominal muscles be lax. This is not helpful.

Suck that navel all the way back to the spine and think about your breath moving around the belly, heating up the pooch and breaking up the fat (okay, this is not scientific advice, but a helpful visualization suggested by my yoga teacher, don't flail me with your science sticks). The further back the butt goes to reach it's invisible chair, the tighter the abdominal wall should get to counterbalance.

+1 on myselfasme's recommendation of giving up "white" foods! Good luck!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 9:28 AM on February 19, 2012

Looking over your activities again, I wonder if you are lacking lower abdominal work despite your active routine?

That thing in the gym (looked for an official name in vain but it looks like this) where you support your weight on your forearms then raise your dangling lower body to your core? That thing is excellent. Do a few sets on that thing whenever you are there.

Or a reverse-curl type of thing. Or pilates ... forgot to mention pilates! Or what DisreputableDog said.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 9:44 AM on February 19, 2012

Regarding the Hunt-Gather-Love article, while women do need fat to be healthy, it is not necessarily an accumulation of belly fat that is optimal - the article was more about hip/thigh fat accumulation as being healthy for women and their babies. Visceral belly fat is correlated with a lot of bad health outcomes, like atherosclerosis and type II diabetes. Anyway.

In the vein of giving up wheat/sugar, Omega-6 fatty acids (from vegetable oils, like peanut oil, canola oil etc in fried foods, nuts and otherwise) might be a bigger culprit. Belly fat is thought by some to be an indicator of excess inflammation in the body. Try eating more fish (increase omega-3 fatty acids) and less vegetable oils / nuts, as well as cutting out wheat, sugar and dairy. This recommendation is only if you're really serious about trying to get rid of the belly fat. Even if you have success on a restricted diet, the fat might just come back if you go back to eating the inflammatory foods that started it in the first place. It might be a better strategy to accept the fat if you're already lean elsewhere on your body and do not want to go on a restrictive diet.
posted by permiechickie at 9:45 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Increase your fat intake, e.g. whole milk, butter, coconut oil, etc. Gently decrease your sugar and carb intake. Take long walks. Eat until you're full. You will effortlessly lose weight.
posted by zeek321 at 11:24 AM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Crunches are not the best exercise to develop the abdominal muscles. They tend to target only the upper abs, while you need to target the lower abs and the obliques. Similarly, I do yoga, and find it is not a good workout for the abs, unless you are specifically concentrating on your abdominal wall, which can be very tough to do correctly if you don't know what to feel for.

It's easy to be active overall yet have under-developed abs. Back muscles, glutes and quads can all to some degree substitute for ab strength if your body is inclined that way.

I would suggest adding a pilates mat class to the mix 1-2 times a week. If this works, you should see results in 4-6 weeks. It won't remove fat, but it will affect definition and posture, both of which can add to the appearance of pooch. It should also help you build a sense of when your abs are working, which you can use to focus on ab strength in your other activities.

If you do decide to go the weight loss route, you have the advantage of being able to do so slowly which increases the chance you will keep it off. However, if your belly is where your body likes to store fat, it is unlikely that you will ever have a six-pack unless you are willing to commit to a life of permanent dieting and 2 hours of exercise a day.

Or, get liposuction.
posted by psycheslamp at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2012

The hacker's diet has a nice section on how exercise is helpful but not sufficient for weight loss (unless you have 3-4 hours to spare a day).
posted by benzenedream at 7:21 PM on February 19, 2012

Cut out as many carbs as you can stand. It is working for me, along with working with a trainer and general lower calorie diet than I was doing before.
posted by mermayd at 4:42 AM on February 20, 2012

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