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Ester Marsh column: How to get rid of excess belly fat

With the new year in full swing, we have lots of new people coming in and other ones returning at the YMCA. I believe in health and fitness and also believe it is the best “fountain of youth” and lifestyle to good health. But, with our new people coming in, the No. 1 question (again) has been “where is the machine to get rid of this?”, grabbing their belly while asking the question. If it is that easy, I would have 50 of those pieces of equipment in the fitness area and not worry about anything else. So, the answer to that question is no — there is not just one piece of equipment that takes away belly fat. It takes time and full body workouts. Another great exercise to lose weight is the “push away” exercise — push away from the table.

Next question I hear is “can I turn that belly fat into muscle?”

I wish it was as simple as turning fat into muscle. Muscle and fat are two different tissues.

Muscle will burn calories even at rest. Fat, on the other hand, just sits there or jiggles when you move. It does not use any energy, but it can be used as energy. That is one of the reasons you should lose weight at a rate of 1-2 pounds per week. Another common mistake people make is to go on these super-low calorie diets to lose weight very quickly. When you decrease your calories by more than 500 calories at a time, your body thinks it is starving. To protect itself, it wants to keep the fat (because it does not use any energy while sitting there) and get rid of muscle tissue.

One hard thing to grasp is that you have to eat to lose fat. When you lose weight quickly, it is a combination of water, muscle and some fat — be prepared to deal with flab. I believe that everyone has seen the shows where people have lost these enormous amounts of weight and have these huge pieces of skin left. That is the extreme, but the faster you lose weight and are not working out, the greater your chance of flab. So to say, muscle turns into flab and/ or flab can turn into muscle is a myth. You can tighten/strengthen your muscles, and you can lose body fat, but they are separate from each other.

How do you lose belly fat? First of all, doing a lot of abdominal exercises is not going to burn the fat off your belly. You cannot spot reduce with exercise. And no, those “shake your fat away belts” do not work. To burn fat, your calorie intake needs to be less then the calories you burn. You can do that in three ways:

1. Eat less calories than what you are burning with everyday life. Your buttocks might start “sagging” with weight loss and no exercise. So working out and eating sensibly are going hand in hand. You wouldn’t wait to go to your doctor until you are better, right?

2. Eat normally and burn more calories by exercising.

3. Eat less calories and burn more by exercising.

 Now we have the fat part down, we are going to another important part — exercise.

You can do 200 sit-ups or crunches a day and that will not help you very much if you let your belly hang the rest of the day. Gravity will push everything to the outside. Are you ready for the best exercise to get a tight belly?

Suck your belly in all day long. I know — a little disappointing. No pill or belt to help the problem or that magical one piece of equipment. Just don’t suck it in so much you can’t breathe. Start with a little at a time. You will be amazed how many times you forget. It will not only flatten your belly, it will help your posture plus your lower back will thank you. One trick I tell people is to stop wearing elastic waistband pants. You do not feel when you are “hanging.” Put a belt on and put it in the hole where it is comfortable to wear. When you feel your belt pressing, you know you are “hanging.” Abdominal exercises do work. It definitely strengthens your abdominals when doing them correctly. But don’t forget to work the opposite muscles in the lower back. Yoga and Pilates both work also on your core muscles. And, most important, be patient. How long did it take you to get your body where it is now? It didn’t happen overnight.

Good luck!

Ester H. Marsh is health and fitness director at the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA in Salisbury.

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