Which exercise burns belly fat? It’s easy to see why this is a frequently asked fitness question, with many people citing a stronger midsection as one of their main motivators for exercising.
There are many myths surrounding the subject that urgently need to be dispelled. First and foremost among them: most scientific studies show that it is not possible to see a reduction in body fat from a targeted area (such as the abdomen) at the same time.
However, you can lower your overall body fat percentage by increasing your activity levels and decreasing your calories. (opens in new tab) consumption. We spoke to a physiotherapist and biochemist to find out the most efficient way to do it – and to clear up some of the lies about reducing belly fat.
Can you reduce body fat?
No specific exercises, even those focused on the stomach muscles, can be used to target belly fat. Physiotherapist Sammy Margo points to some studies to back this up.
“A study (opens in new tab) which targeted abdominal fat with exercise for 6 weeks showed no change in abdominal fat. Another study (opens in new tab) in 40 overweight and obese women found that abdominal resistance training for 12 weeks had no effect on abdominal fat loss compared to dietary change alone.
“A 12-week study (opens in new tab) in which 104 participants who completed a training program exercising only one arm found that overall fat loss occurred, but not in the arm being exercised. And some studies (opens in new tab) have confirmed that spot reduction is not effective for burning fat in specific areas of the body, including the arms and stomach.”
Sammy Margo has been a licensed physical therapist for 32 years and has built her clinic over the past 28+ years. She trained as a certified physiotherapist and did a Masters in Physiotherapy (MSc) at University College and Middlesex Hospital. She is also a qualified Pilates instructor and author of The Good Sleep Guide.
The reason for this, and the process of losing fat, is far from simple, as Margo explains.
“The fat in the body’s cells is in the form of triglycerides which are stored in body fat that can be used to supply energy,” she says. “Before they can be used for energy, triglycerides must be broken down into smaller molecules – free fatty acids and glycerol – which enter the bloodstream. These smaller molecules are used to produce energy.
“When you exercise, triglycerides can come from any fat cell in the body, not just the area of the body that is being exercised.”
Margo says there are some smaller studies that go against the grain, supporting lower body fat. She says further studies on the subject are needed to draw a more definitive conclusion.
Where do you lose and gain fat first?
Where you lose or gain fat will depend on contextual factors such as genes, gender and age, as well as your stress levels, hormone balance, genetics and lifestyle.
For example, a 2012 study published in the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) discovered that “gluteo-femoral adipocytes in women are larger than in men”. Or, in other words, women were found to carry more fat around their hips and thighs than men.
“Women tend to store fat in their hips and behind; men usually accumulate fat in their belly or belly,” says Margo.
“Obesity tends to run in families, suggesting that genes may play a role. Genes can also influence how much body fat you have and where it is stored in the body.”
She also says age plays a role, as “adults tend to have more body fat.”
What do abdominal exercises do?
Even if you use the best ab rollers (opens in new tab) or perform ab exercises like planks (opens in new tab)Studies show that you cannot reduce belly fat by performing exercises that target the muscles in this area during exercise.
Instead, work your core muscles (opens in new tab) with abdominal exercises like sit-ups should be seen as a way to build a stronger and more functional body.
“These exercises can improve core strength, posture and balance,” says Margo. “They can reduce back pain and improve flexibility. The jury is out on whether they can reduce belly fat, and indeed fat in all areas of the body.”
Which exercise burns belly fat?
If your goal is to lose belly fat, the best way to achieve this is to lower your overall body fat percentage. To do this, you need to burn more calories (through exercise and daily activities) than you consume in a day to achieve a calorie deficit. (opens in new tab).
“All exercise contributes to a calorie deficit,” says Margo. “Try high intensity interval training (HIIT) as it is time efficient. In a meta-analysis of 13 studies (opens in new tab), HIIT – like most moderate-intensity exercise – was found to improve body fat mass and waist circumference. Aerobic or cardio exercise (such as a session on the best routines (opens in new tab) or exercise bikes (opens in new tab)) also helps reduce body fat. But HIIT (opens in new tab) it takes less time.”
Weight training (opens in new tab)while it is more often associated with hypertrophy (opens in new tab) goals, is another strong option for those looking to lose weight. A Sports Medicine 2021 (opens in new tab) The study on this topic found that “resistance training reduces body fat percentage, body fat mass, and visceral fat in healthy adults.”
The key to long-term fat loss is finding a form of exercise that you enjoy so that participation becomes a habit. CDC (opens in new tab) suggests that “people who lose weight gradually and steadily (about one to two pounds per week) are more successful at keeping the weight off.”
How to burn fat
If you want to shed body fat efficiently, you will need to consider various factors such as diet and daily activity levels. (opens in new tab)), as well as your time spent exercising.
“Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) describes the calories burned from all the movements you do during the day that aren’t exercise and can make a difference in your weight loss,” says Margo. “Examples of NEAT are cooking, shopping, walking and gardening – basically everyday activities.
In addition to increasing your exercise levels and regularity, the third key component to burning fat is finding the right diet. You will need to create a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn each day, but (especially for those who participate in regular exercise) it is important that this deficit is not so large that it is unsustainable .
Margo has shared some tips for reducing your daily calorie intake. “Increasing protein intake can reduce appetite and thus reduce calorie intake,” says Margo. “It can also help maintain muscle mass during weight loss.
“…Make sure you get enough sleep (usually about 7 hours, although people vary in their sleep needs). Lack of sleep is linked to obesity in general and also lower fat loss on a low-calorie diet.
Biochemist Tim Bond, a researcher with the Tea Advisory Panel, adds: “Load up on fiber as this has a prebiotic effect (increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids in the colon, which communicate with hunger hormones and help promoting satiety.)
“Also, emphasize whole grains over processed grains and focus on your fruit and vegetable intake and your intake of beans.”
Tim Bond has been a chemist, natural health expert and researcher in the food, beverage, including tea and herbal infusions, and natural health sectors for 28+ years. Tim has a national and international reputation, publishing peer-reviewed research papers on tea, herbal infusions and natural health and is a contributor to several books on the science and historical aspects of tea. In this role as a researcher, Tim covers all aspects of research and development for a diverse global base, including regulatory, health claims and sustainability issues. Tim also lectures at global food, drink and natural health events.
Another recommendation Bond offered was to try to reduce stress levels, as research shows that “stress increases adrenal hormones like cortisol, which increase habituation and increase central fat storage.”
How important is diet to burn fat?
A 2007 study published in Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism (opens in new tab) found that diet is a more important factor than exercise levels when losing weight, but a two-pronged approach that combines diet with increased levels of activity is more effective than either method used in isolation.
“Both diet and exercise are important for weight loss,” says Margo. “For weight loss, it is necessary to create a calorie gap. This means, you need to burn more calories than you consume. It is easier to create a calorie gap by eating less (eg reducing your calorie intake by 500) than by exercising.
“However, exercise is important. Strength training, for example, helps preserve lean body mass (muscle) which can increase your metabolic rate so you burn more calories even at rest.