Getting rid of abdominal fat does not mean running yourself ragged — it’s about exercising and eating smarter to optimally achieve a healthy weight, experts say.

According to Holly Kuzmiak-Ngiam, a Road Runners Club of America-certified running coach and head coach at Run With Holly in Singapore, there are some truths to get out of the way: there’s no such thing as spot reduction, and doing sit-ups won’t help you lose belly fat.

“At the end of the day you don’t get to choose where you lose,” she said. If you exercise and still have a pot belly, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting fitter and healthier. Kuzmiak-Ngiam added that men do tend to carry their excess weight around the middle.

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Stay in the Zone

For weight management, it’s important to understand how the body uses energy from carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates burn rapidly for quick energy during bursts of high-intensity activity, like a sprint. Fats, on the other hand, burn slowly for sustained energy during long, moderately paced physical activities.

Tapping into fats for energy allows your body to work for longer periods of time as our body has much more fats relative to a limited amount of carbohydrates available to burn.

“If you’re genuinely doing a fat burning activity, it’s less intense than people think,” Kuzmiak-Ngiam said, particularly in places like Singapore since heart rate increases faster in warm weather.

So if your goal is to lose excess weight, one way is to start your workout gradually, take walking breaks during a run or walk when you come to a hill — all these help you to stay in the optimal “fat-burning” moderate intensity activity zone, which is roughly 60-70 percent of your maximum heart rate. A heart rate monitor would be most helpful here.

If you begin a run too briskly, it’s difficult for the body to switch from burning sugars to burning fats. However, although the body burns fats during lower intensity workouts, the fat burning rate remains low and you have to exercise longer to burn the same amount of calories you would at higher intensities. Such long, moderately paced runs can be time-consuming.

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Stress Your Body the Right Way

To maximise the potential for weight loss from a calorie perspective, putting different stressors on the body such as bouts of high-intensity interval training makes the body work harder, Kuzmiak-Ngiam said.

The 7-minute high-intensity circuit training programme, first detailed in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, which recommends rounds of intense jumping jacks, lunges, or crunches, with 10-second intervals to rest in between, could be a good option. 

Strength training exercises are also important stressors. A 2014 study from Harvard University on 10,500 men aged 40 and over showed that those who lifted weights every day had half as much belly fat after 12 years than men who only did cardiovascular activity as measured by waist circumference, though the men who did both types of exercise gained the least fat.

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Watch What You Eat

Beyond exercise, a suite of diet and lifestyle factors play a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight.

Poor eating habits, often post-workout, is where many people go wrong, Kuzmiak-Ngiam said, because they feel exercise entitles them to eat what they like.

“Any calories you burn during a 30-minute run can be eaten back with a small pastry,” she said. In Singapore, the temptation would be to tuck into a rich butter sugar toast or fried bee hoon, along with a cup of calorie-rich kopi. So the net effect could be no weight loss, or worse, weight gain from over-compensation.

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Lifestyle Matters Too

According to Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist at Rucker Nutrition and Body with Soul in Singapore, cortisol is the key hormone that drives weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. Cortisol is released in response to stress and can affect where and how fat is stored. Emotional stress and poor sleeping habits, for example, can spike cortisol levels but so can a diet high in sugar, refined grains, and fats.

“To get the weight off the middle you need to stabilise blood sugars,” she said, and for that, you have to address the cortisol levels in your body by managing your diet and changing your lifestyle.

To prevent sugar spikes, a diet consisting of wholegrains and lower-sugar options is encouraged.

As for measuring the effectiveness of your health regime, Rucker said to “use your trousers … if you come down a trouser size, you know it’s working.”

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Read these next:

  1. Regulation of Carbohydrate and Fat Metabolism During and After Exercise. John O. Holloszy, Wendy M. Kohrt. Annual Review of Nutrition 1996 16:1, 121-138