What Is The Key To Controlling Belly Fat?

Adding weight-training to your regular aerobic routine could help prevent or control belly fat over the years.

While a heart-thumping, high-octane spinning class or long run outdoors burns plenty of calories, aerobic exercise may not be enough to keep an expanding waistline in check. A new study says it takes weight training, too.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found regular weight training can slow down the pace of waistline expansion that’s common in men as they age.

The study, which was published Monday in the journal Obesity, involved 10,500 healthy men, age 40 and older, who took part in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study between 1996 and 2008. The researchers analyzed 12 years of data to see which types of exercise had the biggest impact on men’s health over time.

The researchers found that 20 minutes of weight training per day was enough to significantly curb weight gain in the midriff.

Healthy men who did twenty minutes of daily weight training had less of an increase in age-related abdominal fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities, according to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers and colleagues. Combining weight training and aerobic activity led to the most optimal results. Aerobic exercise by itself was associated with less weight gain compared with weight training. 

Not surprisingly, the men in the study who generally stayed sedentary and didn’t engage in any regular exercise had the fastest expanding waistlines.

It’s well known that being overweight increases one’s risk for chronic and deadly conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and more recent research suggests that carrying extra weight around the midriff raises risk even further.

Belly fat is linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions that include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, elevated cholesterol levels and obesity — all of which increase the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes, among other health conditions. A study published earlier this year found excessbelly fat raised one’s risk for COPD by as much as 72 percent. In the U.S. an estimated 20 to 25 percent of adults have metabolic syndrome.

“Because aging is associated with sarcopenia, the loss of skeletal muscle mass, relying on body weight alone is insufficient for the study of healthy aging,” said lead author Rania Mekary, a researcher in HSPH’s Department of Nutrition. “Measuring waist circumference is a better indicator of healthy body composition among older adults. Engaging in resistance training or, ideally, combining it with aerobic exercise could help older adults lessen abdominal fat while increasing or preserving muscle mass.”

Prior studies had been focused on a specific population (e.g. overweight or with type 2 diabetes) and were of short duration and had mixed results. The new study was long-term with a large sample of healthy men with a wide range of BMI (body mass index).

Mekary and colleagues studied the physical activity, waist circumference (in centimeters (cm)), and body weight of 10,500 healthy U.S. men aged 40 and over participating in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study between 1996 and 2008. Their analysis included a comparison of changes in participants’ activity levels over the 12-year period to see which activities had the most effect on the men’s waistlines. Those who increased the amount of time spent in weight training by 20 minutes a day had less gain in their waistline (-0.67 cm) compared with men compared with men who similarly increased the amount of time they spent on moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise (-0.33 cm), and yard work or stair climbing (-0.16 cm). Those who increased their sedentary behaviors, such as TV watching, had a larger gain in their waistline.

“This study underscores the importance of weight training in reducing abdominal obesity, especially among the elderly,” said Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH and senior author of the study. “To maintain a healthy weight and waistline, it is critical to incorporate weight training with aerobic exercise.”

A large body of research has found that weight-bearing exercise is essential to maintaining good health for both men and women. A study of 32,000 men published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found about two hours of weightlifting a week reduced a man’s risk for type 2 diabetes by as much as 25 percent. The same may also be true for women. Weight training exercise is also essential for building healthy bones, and is linked to a decreased risk for developing osteoporosis.

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