With summer rapidly approaching, a bathing suit-ready body – with a flat belly, is top of mind for many men and women. But many people don’t know how they are sabotaging their chances of flatter abs or which exercises up their chances of attaining them, says orthopaedic surgeon Kevin D. Plancher, MD, founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
“Extra belly fat isn’t just hard on the eyes – it’s hard, more importantly, on our health. Extensive medical research has shown that too much abdominal fat increases the odds of developing metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Known as “visceral fat,” this excess padding also surrounds abdominal organs such as the liver, impeding their function,” Dr. Plancher notes. There’s no question, however, that keeping abdominal fat at bay is a major challenge for men and women of every weight.
Common reasons for belly fat
“If your tummy bulges a little too much, it may – or may not – actually be your fault,” says Dr. Plancher. Many factors can make people gain excess belly fat, and not all of them are things they can change. Still, it helps to be aware of what factors lead to weight gain in the abdomen so people can modify our lifestyles as much as possible.
According to Dr. Plancher, these include:
Sugary foods and drinks: Even so-called “healthier” choices such as frozen yogurt and low-fat muffins still pack a lot of sugar, and high sucrose and fructose intake has been linked in research to excess belly fat. Soda, flavored coffee drinks, and sweet tea are also among the big offenders.
Alcohol: Surely you’ve heard the term “beer belly.” It comes from alcohol’s suppression of fat-burning, along with the calories from alcohol that are partly stored as belly fat. Consumed moderately, especially in red wine, alcohol can, however, lower the risk of heart attack or stroke but some do contain a high content of sugar.
Menopause: The growth of a “meno-pot” is legendary among menopausal women, but there’s strong science behind that unhappy belly fat gain. When estrogen levels drop dramatically – typically around age 50 – fat is more likely to be stored in the abdomen instead of the hips and thighs.
Fruit juice: Juicing may be a huge health trend right now, but it’s not so good in certain ways. Even unsweetened, 100% fruit juice contains a huge amount of sugar, which drives insulin resistance and belly fat gain.
Genetics: Unfortunately, if your parents tended to store excess fat in their bellies, you probably will too. Genes appear to play a prominent role in where we store fat and our waist-to-hip ratios.
Stress: Going through a rough patch? You may be producing more of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which not only fuels hunger and overeating but promotes fat storage in the tummy.
Inactivity: OK, this won’t shock most of us, but too much couch time and lounging around simply doesn’t promote a flatter belly. We need to burn more calories to keep belly fat at bay.
Exercises to flatten the belly
All hope is not lost. There’s much we can do to flatten the tummy. According to Dr. Plancher, perhaps the most impactful move is to, well, get moving! “You’ll see faster, more effective results when you eat properly and combine that with daily activity, especially cardio exercises such as brisk walking, hiking, jogging or stair climbing,” he says.
Dr. Plancher, who lectures globally on issues related to orthopaedic procedures and sports injury management, also recommends spot-toning exercises to enhance cardio exercise in your belly-flattening efforts. These exercises include:
Sit-ups: Lying on the floor, hold your hands by your ears and bend your knees with feet flat on the floor. Lift your shoulders and upper back away from the floor, with face pointing toward the ceiling. Exhale as you come up, hold for a second, and inhale as you return to the floor. Repeat 15-25 times.
Crunch-and-twist: Start the same way you do for sit-ups, but as you raise yourself up, slowly twist your body from the waist. Touch left knee with right elbow, then untwist and go back to starting position. Repeat, now touching the right knee with the left elbow. Repeat on each side 10-15 times.
Hip lifts: Lie on the floor with arms at sides, palms down and legs over hips at a 90-degree angle. Flex your feet. Now lift hips off the floor using your core muscles as your legs are reaching toward ceiling. Return to starting position. Repeat 15 times.
Side plank: Lie on right side while legs are extended and feet and hips rest on floor atop each other. Prop head up on right elbow. Squeeze your core muscles and lift hips and knees off the floor. Hold as long as you can, then return to starting position. Repeat on other side. Do as many repetitions as possible.
Cycling: Consideration to joining an exercise bicycle program for those with early arthritis of the knee can also be quite helpful to reduce overall body fat and tone your abdomen.
Kevin D. Plancher, MD, is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and the founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.