The return of the curvy woman as a beauty icon is a welcome development. But while we now know that you don’t have to be super-skinny to be healthy, it’s still best to strive for curves in all the right places, as the saying goes — and not where they don’t belong.
In fact, dimpled thighs and a little “junk in the trunk” are perfectly harmless, but belly fat can pose a health risk. Because women are more prone than men to carry extra weight in their abdomen, health risks from belly fat are greater for women. For older women in particular, abdominal fat can lead to serious problems like heart disease and other chronic medical problems.
Our bodies contain different types of fat. As women enter their middle and later years, it’s normal to gain a bit of weight, especially in the hips, buttocks and upper arms. In fact, even if you’re a little annoyed about your middle-aged spread, the type of fat on these body parts don’t pose as much of a threat to your health as abdominal fat.
That’s because the extra weight on thighs, hips and so forth consists subcutaneous fat, meaning that it rests just beneath your skin. But belly fat is the visceral fat type, which is located closer to your organs.
Both of these types of fat release natural chemicals into the bloodstream as they process nutrients. But because visceral fat is closer to your internal organs, the organs are more affected by those released hormones. The more belly fat you have, the more chemicals are leased that interfere with your body’s ability to regulate its systems.
The far-reaching effects that excess abdominal fat can have on your health include a higher risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as diabetes and breathing problems.
Women are notoriously hard on themselves when it comes to assessing their figures. That makes it difficult to tell a normally rounded abdomen from one that is carrying too much weight. Fortunately, tape measures can be counted on for objectivity.
Measure your belly when you’re standing, and while you’re not wearing anything that covers the area. (Of course, you’ll get the most accurate results if you avoid doing this after a heavy meal or while you’re carrying water weight from hormonal fluctuations.) The place to measure is just above your hipbone, and in line with the top of your navel.
You should be holding the tape tautly, but not to the extent that it buries itself in your skin. Don’t suck in your stomach. In fact, taking the measurement on the exhale will give you the truest estimate of your waist circumference.
Ideally, your belly measurement will be 35 inches (ca. 89 cm) or less. If it’s more than that, don’t panic! There are plenty of ways in which you can whittle your waistline.
Some women are proportioned in such a way that they might look skinny but be carrying extra body fat. For a more precise estimate of excess belly fat, you can add the step of measuring your hips at the widest point. Then, take your waist circumference and divide by your hip circumference. If the figure is 0.08 or higher, you may need to lose some abdominal fat.
To reduce belly fat, you may be tempted to move right to the classic sit up, or to various “crunch” combinations. But the reality is that these spot exercises are really strengthening ab muscles, rather than intensely targeting fat.
While crunches are still good for your health — they encourage a stronger core, which helps with balance and back pain — they’re not the best way to reduce belly fat itself.
The real superstar in the belly blaster category is any kind of aerobic workout. Activities that get your heart pumping will also jump-start your internal fat-burning machine. Good cardio workouts include walking, running, swimming, hiking, paddle boarding, and playing tennis. Or use cardio-focused gym equipment like treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes. Of course, aerobic and jazzercize-style classes are also great fat-burners.
If you’re doing fast-paced cardio workouts, Mayo Clinic recommends about 75 minutes a week. That works out to between three and four 20-minute cardio workouts, or two or three 30-minute sessions.
Hate intense workouts? Moderate cardio is OK, too, but you’ll need to commit to longer and/or more frequent sessions of aerobic exercise. For moderate workouts, Mayo Clinic suggests about 150 minutes a week. That amount of time equals about 30 to 45 minutes every other day.
Saturated and trans fats found in red meat, non-skim dairy products, and highly processed food can all contribute to body fat. Instead, look for the so-called good fats, which are comprised of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Use olive or canola oil to dress your salads and side dishes, rather than thick salad dressings and sauces. Other sources of healthy fats include nuts, seeds, salmon, tuna, and avocados.
High-fiber foods help your system efficiently flush excess fat away, while lean proteins convert to muscle rather than fat. Eat a “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, in order to get all the nutrients you need, including high-fiber selections like broccoli, leafy greens, seedy and dried fruits, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole grain rice and pasta. Excellent lean protein choices include Greek yogurt, egg whites, a moderate amount of seeds and nuts, fish, seafood and occasional lean beef.
Lifestyle factors beyond poor diet and lack of exercise can also add inches to your abdominal area. Stress and lack of sleep have been found to contribute to weight gain.
The so-called “stress hormone,” cortisol, interferes with your body’s ability to turn food into fuel. For this reason alone, living in a perpetual state of tension can result in extra body fat. Additionally, these factors tend to become a kind of vicious cycle. Lack of sleep makes you feel stressful, which causes you to be too tired to make good eating and workout choices, which can make sleeping difficult….it’s a merry-go-round that too many of us get stuck on.
It can take some experimenting to find the methods that make you feel relaxed enough for sleep, not to mention feeling less stressed during the day. Fortunately, working out is a natural stress-buster, while banning junk food at night might lead to less tossing and turning.
In addition, consider naturally relaxing activities to reduce belly fat. Professional massages are more than just an indulgence when your health is at risk. Yoga, meditation, and getting fresh air are also naturally soothing activities.
Of course, crash-dieting can be just as dangerous as a bit of extra abdominal fat. Talk to your doctor about your level of risk based on the different types of fat you’re carrying, and about what rate of weight loss you should aim for. If you’re like most women over 50, an average of about 2 pounds a week is about right.