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The Never Ending Search for Our 6-Pack Abs

I know I’ve written about this before but it’s still the Numero Uno question I get from people: I want to get rid of this (and they point to their bellies). How do I do that? My typical response: How’s your diet and you know your core (or abs to them) is more than a series of horizontal lines.

Strong, toned core muscles do more than just make you look and feel good.

They stabilize your spine and reduce your potential for back pain. It’s also where much of your power and strength comes from and it helps your balance and stability, which becomes especially important as you age.

It’s important to keep in mind that no single abdominal exercise will challenge all the different sets of abdominal muscles, so a variety of movements is necessary. Strong back muscles also help to hold your stomach in. But will doing abdominal (core) exercises burn off the belly fat?

Not One but Two Types of Fat

First of all, you have two different types of fat that perform different metabolic functions, not all healthy: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is the layer of fat over the top of your muscles and directly under your skin. Subcutaneous fat is what you measure using skin calipers to estimate total body fat. This is what jiggles when you move and causes cellulite (ugh).

It’s the visceral fat that can trigger health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. This fat is deeper and wraps around your organs and is more metabolically active meaning it releases chemicals into your body that can cause damage to organs and blood vessels. And, you may have visceral fat even though you have a body mass index (BMI) within normal limits or if you’re skinny (skinny fat). In other words, you don’t have to be overweight to have an excess of visceral fat and more research is suggesting that waist size (not your hips) is a bigger risk factor than overall body fat percentage. A reduced potential risk for disease is associated with a waist circumference of 35 inches or less for women and 40 inches or less for men. However, visceral fat is also easier to gain and lose.

What to do about it?

Okay, I get it, right? So what can you do about it? First, genetics has a part to play in where you store fat as well as hormones, particularly for menopausal women (drop in estrogen and a slowing of your metabolism are the main culprits).

The 1-2 punch that has the biggest impact? Nutrition (avoid sugars and processed carbs/food, fresh produce, lean protein, healthy fats) and exercise are the 1-2 punch you need to lose the belly fat. Your body manufactures hormones, enzymes and fat, and builds muscle based on the foods you eat. You simply cannot exercise your way out of a poor diet, and not all calories are created equal.

Not all calories have the same effect. Calories from different foods are metabolically different, depending upon the source. One of the reasons for this is due to the fact that different nutrients provoke different hormonal responses, and those hormonal responses determine how much fat your body will accumulate and hold on to.

Research shows that calories gleaned from a highly processed diet promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein and fiber decrease hunger.

A high-sugar diet promotes both insulin and leptin resistance, the latter of which is a hormone produced by fat cells. Leptin helps to send signals that you are full or to burn fat. If you become resistant, your body doesn’t recognize signals to burn fat or to stop eating and the result is sugar cravings and hunger, which can lead to overeating and increased fat accumulation.

As you cut down on net carbs, you need to replace them with healthy fats like grass-fed butter, olives and olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, raw nuts and pastured eggs. Once your body is well-adapted to burning fat as its primary fuel, it becomes very efficient at burning calories derived from fat. If you currently burn sugar as your primary fuel, then rapidly and significantly increasing your healthy fat intake may not be beneficial and could result in weight gain. Your body simply isn’t adapted to burning all that fat yet, and fat is very high in calories.

So go slow, and remember that one of the keys to making this metabolic switchover is to dramatically cut your sugar consumption. As long as you’re giving your body sugar, it will use that first. Intermittent fasting can speed up your body’s transition from burning sugar to burning fat as your primary fuel. You can also combine intermittent fasting with high-intensity interval training, (HIIT) which tends to be very effective for fat loss.

Lose the Fat

Other strategies to lose both your subcutaneous and visceral fat stores:

  1. Reduce Stress – Chronic stress causes an increase in cortisol, a hormone that wreaks havoc in at least two ways. For starters, it makes you more likely to seek out fatty, sugary foods that provide quick comfort. Cortisol also alters your body chemistry so you burn off less calories and increases the amount of fat stored in your belly.
  2. Drink Enough Water – All your organs need water to work properly, particularly the kidneys which need it to flush toxins out of your body. Dehydration causes the body to release cortisol (see above). Vicious cycle.
  3. Get Enough ZZZZZZZs – Quality sleep can help you control stress, and loss of sleep impacts the production of hormones and cortisol levels. Overnight, your cortisol levels should drop which allow the body a time to repair and recharge. Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but your sleep sweet spotis probably between 7 to 9 hours a night.
  4. Reduce Your Insulin Level – The body produces insulin in response to carbohydrates as it helps to regulate blood sugar by taking the sugar out of the blood and into the cells to be used for fuel. Cortisol works with insulin to help regulate glucose in your bloodstream (all roads lead back to cortisol!). Cortisol can also reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin which in turn increases your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

Can I Spot Reduce?

The answer to that is a big, fat NO. Doing abdominal exercises to burn belly fat won’t work. You can strengthen the abdominal muscles but unless you lose the fat, they will continue to be hidden. You may experience a reduction in your waist size as you become more tones but you won’t see the muscles until you lose the subcutaneous fat. To build strong abdominal muscles, you may have to do more than a couple of crunches. The right process requires using effective exercises (ones that challenge your body) that target each of the different groups of abdominal muscles. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is one method that spurs weight loss and improved fat burning weight loss and improved fat burning potential. And since muscle tissue will burn three to five times more energy than fat tissue, it may also increase your resting metabolic rate.

6 pack abs from power of movement

So, with proper exercise, the right nutrition, quality sleep, plenty of water and reducing your stress, you can uncover your 6-pack abs.

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