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So you've put on a pound or two this winter. That's not so bad, right? Thing is, the extra weight probably went straight to your waist. And that's where the trouble starts.
Belly fat is the latest threat to your health. Study after study shows that it increases your risk of heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and dementia. Not only that, women whose waists are bigger than 35 inches are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease than women whose middles measure less than 28 inches, according to research from the National Institutes of Health. And a waist that's more than 32 inches ups your risk of diabetes, experts say. "Some patients tell me, 'I don't have a weight problem except for my belly,' but that is a big, big problem," says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center and a FITNESS advisory board member.
Belly fat, or visceral fat, is so dangerous because it lies deep in your abdomen, surrounds your organs, and secretes toxic hormones, explains Rachel A. Whitmer, PhD, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. Two of the worst offenders it spawns are proteins called cytokines and adipokines, which contribute to the thickening of the walls of coronary blood vessels, increasing the chances that you'll have a heart attack, says James A. de Lemos, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
The liver -- your body's detox center -- also seriously suffers if you have too much ab flab. "When the liver gets infiltrated with this fat, it can have a harder time filtering out harmful substances," Fernstrom says. Belly bulge even affects your muscles, making them less effective, which can raise your diabetes risk. (The reason: Healthy muscles use up a lot of the sugar the body takes in, while sluggish ones can't metabolize it as well.) If all that isn't enough to make you start doing crunches, new evidence suggests that apple-shaped women are more likely to get certain cancers -- especially breast, colon, and uterine -- though researchers don't yet know why.
Now for the good news (yes, there is some): "Before menopause, women lose weight far more easily from their bellies than from their thighs and buttocks," says Michele S. Olson, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, and a FITNESS advisory board member. The best advice: Get started today. On the next page we'll share the experts' top tips for losing the spare tire, keeping it off -- and adding years to your life.
That's all you need to ditch to beat belly bulge, says Mehmet Oz, MD, author of YOU on a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management. Dropping this amount from your daily intake -- we're talking one cookie, a soda, or a glass of wine -- will help you lose about 12 pounds a year. And it's a cinch to stick to a plan that requires no actual dieting or deprivation.Build muscle mass.
During a cardio workout, your body zaps hundreds of calories, but your metabolism slows down almost instantly when you stop. After strength training, on the other hand, you burn fat for hours. "Regular weight lifting can boost your metabolic rate by about 15 percent," says Tim Davis, director of personal training at Peak Performance, a gym in New York City. He recommends three 45- to 50-minute sessions a week.Run from fat.
One of the most effective ways to reduce flab around your middle is to jog it off. "Hit the road for 30 to 60 minutes two to four times a week," Davis suggests. Steady running not your thing? "Interval training -- constantly switching up the pace of your workout -- will also help you lose weight, because it blasts more calories," Davis says. "Do two minutes of sprinting followed by a 60-second walk, then repeat for a half hour."Eat good-for-you foods.
Your body is smart -- it knows when it's not getting any nutrients. So if you munch on processed foods like chips and doughnuts, you'll still be hungry, Dr. Oz says. The fix: Chow down regularly on fruits, vegetables, fish, low-fat dairy, and whole grains, says Keri Gans, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.Have a high-protein breakfast.
Skip the sugary cereals. They're too easily digested, which means they speed through your system. "An egg-white omelet is a good choice," says Louis Aronne, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and director of the weight-control program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. If you're eating on the go, try unsweetened Greek yogurt with fruit and a dollop of honey or a piece of string cheese with whole-grain bread.Don't skip meals.
That will only set you up to overeat. "Nosh on small portions every three to four hours to keep your metabolism running, so your body won't panic, go into starvation mode, and stop burning calories -- which is what happens when you haven't eaten in a while," Gans says.Head off a freak-out.
Stress causes the body to start stockpiling fat in the gut. "Your system thinks a crisis is coming," Dr. Oz explains. "It deposits fat cells into the belly because it's the most convenient storage space." Chill out with yoga, meditation, or massage. If you're a stress eater, keep healthy snacks such as almonds on hand to prevent junk-food binges.Get your shut-eye.
"Lack of sleep increases the likelihood you'll gain weight," Dr. Aronne says. "When you're tired, the hormones that stimulate appetite increase, while the hormones that help you feel full plummet." Aim for seven to eight hours a night.Move more all the time.
Computers, TVs, video games, and cars keep us glued to our seats. The result: We're less physical than ever before. To trim your tummy, "do whatever you can to keep moving," says Olson. "Even 10 minutes can help." Studies show that you can burn up to 350 calories a day (the equivalent of your lunch!) by walking around when you're on the phone, tapping your toes when you're surfing the Web, doing squats when you're brushing your teeth. Before you know it, you'll be saying buh-bye, belly fat!
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2009.