You’ve worn in your walking shoes. You fill your grocery cart with healthy fare. And you’re careful not to dive headfirst into a pint of ice cream under stress. Yet your belly fat remains. It’s frustrating, for sure, but far from permanent! Those healthy habits are a good start, but as you age, you need to work out and eat smarter to maintain a slimmer middle. “Belly fat can be very responsive with the right strategies,” says Michele Olson, PhD, an exercise researcher at Auburn University. Here, science-proven ways to fine-tune your already healthy routine for fast results. For speedier flattening, try this workout plan and watch stubborn belly bulge disappear!
Pick up your pace and you’ll burn an average of 25% more calories–and target belly fat. One recent study from the University of Arkansas found that even when exercisers burned exactly the same number of calories a week, those who did shorter, high-intensity workouts had a 20% drop in visceral (deep abdominal) fat after 3 months, while those who did longer workouts at a moderate pace had no change. Aim for 2 or 3 weekly speed sessions lasting about 30 minutes each. You should be walking at an intensity level in which you can speak only a few words at a time. If you’re unable to maintain that effort for the entire workout, practice intervals, alternating short bursts of fast walking with slower segments.
Some easy ways to incorporate intervals:
With an MP3 player: Speed up every other song.
With a sports watch: Alternate 3-to 5-minute fast-paced bursts with equal-length bouts at a moderate pace.
In a hilly area: Walk as quickly as you can to the top, then walk back down to recover. (You can do the same thing on a treadmill at a 5 to 10% incline, lowering to zero to recover.)
To get more ab toning from classic crunches, use a stability ball. Research from San Diego State University shows you’ll activate nearly 40% more of your topmost abdominals (the rectus abdominis) and 47% more of your side abs (the obliques). Then add some moves that target your deeper belly muscles. “Crunches are just one piece of the puzzle,” says trainer Jonathan Ross, owner of Aion Fitness in Bowie, MD. “The key to a firm midsection is to strengthen everything under your top muscles.”
Planks offer an easy way to target this area: Lie facedown with upper body propped on elbows and forearms. Tuck your toes and raise hips and legs off floor so body is in line from head to heels. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Then try a set of side planks: Balance on one elbow, forearm, and side of foot, with hips and legs stacked and opposite arm raised toward ceiling.
Vigorous aerobic exercise such as fast walking or jogging is great for blasting belly fat, but a total-body weight-training routine boosts results and firms your midsection even more. A 12-week Skidmore College study found that exercisers who did a high-intensity total-body resistance routine combined with cardio lost more than twice as much body fat–in particular, more than 4 times as much belly fat–compared with cardio-only exercisers. The resistance-training group also ate a high-protein diet, while the other group followed a traditional, moderate-protein eating plan. Researchers speculate that the extra fat loss may be due to the stepped-up calorie burn you get after lifting weights and the extra protein.
Bonus: You’ll be less likely to regain lost pounds. “Whenever you lose weight, it typically comes from both fat tissue and muscle,” explains Olson. “Resistance training helps maintain or even add muscle mass, which prevents a slowdown in metabolism.”
If you already strength-train consistently, you’re one up on the nearly 80% of adults who don’t. Research shows that even basic lower-body moves such as squats and dead lifts are a great way to strengthen core muscles and help flatten your abs. Incorporating a balance challenge, such as standing on one leg or using a wobble board or inflatable disk (available at sporting goods stores), helps target and tone every little muscle. “When you narrow your base of support–like balancing on one foot–you have less stability, so your body naturally engages all of your core muscles to prevent you from falling,” says Olson. Try adding a knee lift to lunges, do single-leg squats, or simply 4. Balance on One Leg as you do upper-body moves such as biceps curls and overhead presses.
Another way to work your abs while toning the rest of your body: Hold a light weight overhead during moves like lunges and squats. “Your core is the main connection between your upper and lower body,” explains Christopher Mohr, RD, PhD, an exercise physiologist and co-owner of Mohr Results in Louisville. “By creating more length from your center to your fingertips, your abs have to work extra hard just to keep you upright.” That creates a firmer, stronger midsection.
Eating right and exercising regularly help ward off both stress and belly fat, but only if you’re getting enough sleep. Skimping on sleep causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to rise, along with levels of deep abdominal fat. “There’s a definite association between lack of sleep, increased stress hormones, and weight gain,” says Olson. In a 6-year study, Canadian researchers found that adults who averaged just 5 or 6 hours of shut-eye a night were 35% more likely to gain 10-plus pounds and were nearly 60% heavier around the middle than those who slept 7 to 8 hours.
Green tea is good for your skin and helps fight cancer–now researchers say it’s even an effective belly buster. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that exercisers who drank the equivalent of about 4 cups of green tea a day for 12 weeks lost over 8 times more ab fat than those who drank an ordinary caffeinated beverage–nearly 8% versus less than 1%. Researchers speculate that catechins (phytonutrients in green tea) may help speed the breakdown of fat.
For faster benefits, here are all of the exercise-related healthy habits and flat belly-boosting tips combined into a weekly routine. If you don’t have time to do everything, start with the cardio sessions. Then add total-body strength-training and finally some ab exercises.
MONDAY: Steady-paced cardio workout (at least 30 minutes)
TUESDAY: Cardio speed/interval workout (at least 30 minutes); total-body strength-training, including at least 2 standing balance exercises (20 to 30 minutes)
WEDNESDAY: Rest day
THURSDAY: Cardio speed/interval workout (at least 30 minutes); ab exercises (about 20 minutes)
FRIDAY: Total-body strength-training, including at least 2 standing balance exercises (20 to 30 minutes)
SATURDAY: Repeat Monday
Counting calories, watching portions, and minimizing junk food are all flat belly essentials, but some foods can make it even easier to achieve your goal. Get our bonus guide to three fat-blasting superstars—including serving size, calorie counts, and meal tips—that will make a measurable difference in your waistline.