Core Knowledge: How to Get Flat Abs
How to Get Rid of Belly FatYour Ab Muscles
Along with muscles in the lower back, these key abdominals make up your core.
The outer layer of the abs on your sides; these run diagonally downward.
Just underneath the external obliques, these run diagonally up your sides.
Two paired sheets of muscle from the ribs to the pelvis that flex you forward.
The deepest ab muscle, which wraps around the waist to support the spine.
Think of your ab muscles as the meat in the middle of a fat sandwich. On top of them is subcutaneous fat, the stuff you pinch as you look in the mirror. Below them is visceral fat, which is the type that takes up residence next to your internal organs -- in excessive amounts if you continually overdo it on calories and experience too much pent-up stress. "When you fill up those subcutaneous areas, fat winds up getting stored where it shouldn't, in your deep abdomen or your liver," explains Arthur Weltman, PhD, exercise physiology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Visceral fat has been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, he notes.
But because you don't have X-ray vision to see whether too much of the potentially dangerous visceral fat is parking itself in your own belly, scientists have figured out a couple of DIY guidelines. To avoid increased risk of obesity-related diseases, women should have a waist measurement no bigger than 35 inches (measure it at the smallest point of your midsection), and some experts recommend a waist-to-hip ratio of around 0.8, meaning that your waistline should be no greater than 80 percent of your hip circumference. According to a Mayo Clinic study released last May, the ratio of waist to hip is believed to be a measurement of visceral fat. Other fascinating research, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, found that women who give birth before age 40 have an average of two centimeters more fat around their bellies than women of the same ages who haven't given birth. (I'll have to thank my two daughters for those extra centimeters.)
Just don't wait until you blow the tape-measure test to start defending your belly from this flab. Step one is to toss the trans fats, which are found in prepackaged treats under the alias partially hydrogenated oils and have been shown to pack on body fat, particularly in the abdomen. Replace them with monounsaturated fats -- for example, olive oil and those in walnuts and avocados -- which help your body metabolize belly fat. And swig some reduced-fat milk, like 1 percent or skim, while you're at it: Calcium increases the activity of enzymes that break down fat cells and reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which triggers your body to hoard belly fat.
Step two is to get some calorie-burning cardio exercise. Of course you've already heard that pointer often, but Weltman takes this idea one step further, noting that high-intensity aerobic exercise is even more effective at burning off visceral fat than the same amount of low-intensity exercise. In one study, he had overweight women walk or jog five times a week; one group worked out for a longer amount of time at a low intensity, while the other did shorter stints of high-intensity work. Even though each group burned the exact same number of calories in each workout, the high-intensity group melted off more visceral fat. "We speculate that there's a relation between the intensity of the workout and the amount of growth hormone released, which is a powerful mobilizer of visceral fat," Weltman says.
The good news, according to Weltman, is that high intensity -- the level at which you feel the effort and can no longer hold a conversation -- is different for each person. "You may have to run to get to that level, while someone else may just have to jog or walk," he explains. "It all depends on your level of fitness, but the great thing is, you can do it whether you're a competitive athlete or just starting out."
I make a mental note to bust the moves in Zumba class like never before.
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