The number one goal of people that go to the gym is weight loss. Actually we should say fat loss, as the goal should be to keep as much of our lean body (muscle) mass as we age and lose only fat.
And it is interesting to see the various approaches people take to lose fat. Some join running groups. Other hit the weights. A number will sign up for classes. And many will shy away from exercise and will approach this purely from a nutritional perspective.
So why should we be concerned with abdominal fat loss? And does this differ from fat on other parts of our body?
To answer the second part first, yes abdominal fat is different. And we should be concerned because extra fat around our mid-section is:
- a risk factor for chronic disease
- correlated with developing metabolic syndrome
- known to contribute more to free fatty acids
So what should you do to shed inches off your mid-section?
Well a recent study took a look at a number of studies to see what most indicated. This meta-analysis included 43 studies with 3552 participants. More of the participants were women than men. Most were diabetic or obese.
The authors of the paper looked at what was most effective for decreasing subcutaneous abdominal adipose tissue; aerobic training, resistance training or a combination of both.
The papers that examined aerobic exercise included studies of 4-52 weeks with training that ranged from one to seven training sessions per week. Three training sessions per week was the most common, followed by five sessions. Sessions ranged from 15-120 minutes in duration with intensities between 40-95% of peak aerobic capacity.
Papers that investigated resistance training ranged from 8 weeks to 104 weeks with training two to four days per week. Three days per week was the most common frequency followed by two days. Sessions ranged from 20 to 90 minutes at intensities ranging from 20-100% of 1 RM (repetition max). Most of the training included 1-2 sets of 8-12 reps to volitional fatigue and one study included 2-3 sets of 7-9 reps.
So what did they find?
Well, aerobic and resistance training were both effective at reducing abdominal fat. The interesting finding was that a combination of both was more effective than either alone. For the studies that followed a combined approach the training plans ranged from 12-52 weeks, training three times per week for 20-75 minutes.
What about the nutrition? Most of the studies were ‘free living’ meaning the study participants did not have a nutritional change. About half of the studies included a prescribed diet and the remaining studies did not specify if there was a nutirtional plan to follow. Of the ones that included a nutritional component, these averaged a 500-1200 kcal/day deficit and a breakdown of 55% carbohydrate, 30% fat and 15% protein was the most common.
So what is the take home message?
As much fun as it was to celebrate the ‘dad bod’ as few years ago we need to recognize the associated health risks with a growing waistline. At minimum you need to train three times a week with a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise. Don’t confuse this a recommendation to seek out a type of hybrid exercise i.e. cardio with weights. Instead do each separately to the intensity and frequency you can handle. For example, it would be better to get on the rowing machine for 30 minutes and then do 30 minutes of intense lifting rather than 60 minutes mixing the two. When combined you don’t increase your fitness as much as you could and you don’t get as strong as you could.
Other takeaways include making this a lifestyle as the studies ran for up to 2 years. Don’t seek out the 21 Day Fix to Blast Belly Fat that can found everywhere online. Instead seek out the types of exercise you enjoy and will stick with. In terms of the nutrition, it is important to note that of the ones that prescribed a diet, the goal was a caloric deficit and included eating all macronutrients.
Lastly, the value of sleep to achieving your fat loss goals cannot be understated. Yes, working out is important. And moving more than we consume is essential. But these can be for naught if you’re not getting close to eight hours of quality sleep every night.
Yarizadeh, H., Eftekhar, R., Anjom-Shoae, J., Speakman, J. R., & Djafarian, K. (2020). The Effect of Aerobic and Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Subcutaneous Abdominal Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Advances in Nutrition.