You practice yoga. You sweat through HIIT class. You even wear through your running shoes a few times a year thanks to thrice-weekly 5-mile runs. But somehow, someway, you still have a stubborn little belly bulge. Is this normal?
According to Los Angeles-based nutrition expert Whitney English, MS, RDN, CPT, even if you log several hours exercising each week, you most certainly can have a little belly due to other neglected aspects of your lifestyle. “Exercise is important for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, but it isn’t the only factor in weight loss,” she explains.
First up: The passing of time isn’t on your side when it comes to decreasing gut girth. Menopause — specifically the decrease in estrogen levels — causes fat storage to shift from the hips and thighs to the stomach, according to a review by the Mayo Clinic. Though menopause doesn’t cause weight gain, this redistribution of fat around the midsection certainly can account for a stubborn tummy.
Additionally, “What we eat, how much we sleep, and our stress levels are all important factors when it comes to weight and body fat,” English says — particularly when it comes to women’s abdomens. Not surprisingly, if you don’t eat healthily, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Because our metabolic rate slows with age, the calories you consume are harder to burn. English adds, “It’s specifically harder to lose body fat, as body fat increases while muscle mass naturally decreases with age.”
That’s why it’s so important to focus on all of the areas of our nutrition and lifestyle choices. The saying goes, ‘you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.’ In this instance, that’s especially true. You can run, but you can’t hide from belly fat.
Our daily routine can also play a key role in how our body burns and stores fat. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you too stressed at work or in your daily life? These can play a major role in the success we find when shaping our bodies because when it comes to stress and a lack of zzz’s, English has news for you. “Both raise cortisol levels, which can cause the body to increase fat storage.” In fact, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to belly fat, even in women that are not overweight. So, it’s important to reduce stress somehow.”
Reason follows that eating healthy, decreasing stress, and getting more shut-eye are lifestyle adjustments that should help with a teeny pot belly. However, if you think adding 100 crunches a day will get you to your goal faster, English is quick to note that no matter what popular fitness magazines may say, you can’t “spot reduce” body fat. “When you see articles stating, ‘Lose Those Love Handles,’ you should immediately flip the page!” she says.
Instead of trying to do a quick fix workout on one area of your body, make a total body adjustment and work on your overall being instead. Besides the physical effects that you’ll see, you’ll feel better mentally and emotionally as well. Think how much better you’d function in day-to-day life if you were getting adequate sleep and were able to lower your stress levels. Suddenly ridding yourself of the belly pooch would seem like a little bonus instead of the primary goal.
Instead of performing spot checks on your body, English suggests you switch up your regular exercise routine. She suggests aiming for 30 minutes of purposeful movement (at a minimum per day) with a mix of exercises that increase your heart rate — like jogging, fast walking, or circuit training — and exercises that build muscle, like Pilates, weightlifting, and body-weight exercises. The combination of cardio and strength training will cause your body to react much better than simply focusing on one area or the other. There are many programs out there that combine the two into awesome fat-burning workouts that will show you results in no time.
As for gut-busting eats, steer clear of inflammation-causing processed foods, like refined grains, added sugars, or unhealthy fats, and focus on incorporating whole foods into your diet. Great anti-inflammatory foods include whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. “These nutrient- and fiber-rich foods will not only improve your health but also provide satiety from your meals, which will prevent overeating and increase satisfaction,” English says.
Cut back on alcohol, which happens to be a major sabotage for women. Older women tend to drink more for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the body sees a glass of wine as a glass of sugar, and that added sugar can make a big difference in your daily diet. Alcohol is especially bad because instead of burning calories, your body focuses on metabolizing the sugar in the alcohol, causing a double-whammy in preventing weight loss.
So, strive to limit alcohol consumption for weight maintenance. And while it’s not the same, try replacing your glass of wine with some water with fruit or sparkling water instead. This will allow you to add a positive to your day instead of a workout-ruining negative, and you’ll feel better tomorrow morning as a bonus.
If your lifestyle already consists of a healthy mix of food, exercise, sleep, and mental well-being, you likely shouldn’t be carrying a belly. There are cases where persistent bloat, stomach pain, or sudden weight gain signal more serious conditions. If you notice any of these, English suggests visiting a physician right away.
This article is for informational purposes only, is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice.
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