Banish Your Belly

You may be trying to trim your tummy so you can look your best in a swimsuit. But there are far more important reasons to banish that belly.

There's a strong link between abdominal fat and increased health risks, explains Fabio Comana, MA, MS, exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.

"Apples," who carry their extra weight in their abdominal area (as opposed to "pears," who have more bulk in their hips and lower body), are more prone to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the risk of serious health problems increases with a waist measurement of over 40 inches in men and over 35 inches in women.

Apples vs. Pears

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Often, apples are men or postmenopausal women, says Cathy Nonas, RD, director of obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York. Men are genetically predisposed to that shape, and the loss of estrogen after menopause can cause a woman's weight to shift from her lower body to her abdomen.

"Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about either your genetic predisposition, or the redistribution of weight," says Nonas, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "But don't compound the situation by gaining weight in general."

While too many fat-laden meals and too little physical activity can also lead to excess poundage and a widening waistline, Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, suggests still another reason: stress (although he acknowledges that this is not yet a generally agreed-upon theory in the medical community).

According to Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection, when we're under stress, our bodies release stress-fighting hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin, and insulin. While adrenalin generally dissipates once the stress-inducing situation is over, cortisol levels remain high, which causes insulin levels to increase as well, Talbott says. The combination of high cortisol and high insulin levels is a recipe for weight gain -- usually around the abdomen, according to Talbott.

Less Food, More Activity

Unfortunately, there is no "magic pill" when it comes to whittling your belly, experts say. And there's no such thing as spot reducing. "You can work out the abdominal muscles, but if you don't lose weight, there will still be a layer of fat over the muscle," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, lead nutrition instructor for the Art Institute of New York City, which prepares students for careers in the culinary profession

Toning Up

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Along with aerobic and strength-training activities, ab-specific exercises can help tone your abdominal muscles. Strong abs help support your back and make everyday activities easier. And once you lose some of the fat layer covering your abs, your tummy-tightening efforts will really show.

In a recent American Council on Exercise study, researchers looked at 13 of the most common abdominal exercises and ranked them best to worst. Among the most effective were the "bicycle" maneuver, the captain's chair (a piece of gym equipment in which you lift your bent legs toward your upper body), crunches done on an exercise ball, crunches done with the legs held vertically, and reverse crunches (lying in crunch position, raise your bent legs toward your shoulders).

For best results, the study's lead researcher, Peter Francis, PhD, recommends doing several of these exercises for five minutes a day.

Finally, it can't hurt to manage your stress.

"Identify what's stressing you out, and then find out what works for you in relieving that stress," Talbott says. Yoga works for some, meditation for others. Your stress reliever may be golf, swimming, or simply a long soak in the tub.

Losing your tummy takes a multi-pronged approach that includes diet, exercise, and stress management, Talbott says.

"Women tend to want to diet, and men tend to want to exercise," Talbott says. "But you need all three pieces to make this work."

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