1. The New Cardio
If there’s a single best way to burn off belly fat, science hasn’t found it yet. But two recent studies offer tantalizing evidence in favor of a regimen typically reserved for athletes: high-intensity exercise.
A study in Australia found that women exercisers who followed a strenuous interval routine for 15 weeks lost more fat than those who did a steady-paced aerobics regimen that burned the same amount of calories. Researcher E. Gail Trapp, PhD, of the University of New South Wales, led two groups of women through stationary bike workouts three days a week. One group alternated eight-second, all-out sprints with easy, 12-second recovery periods for 20 minutes; the other cruised at a conversational pace for 40 minutes. At the end of the study, the sprinters lost more fat—5.5 pounds on average.
Another trial, which tested continuous high-intensity exercise rather than intervals, also suggests that we should embrace the killer workout. As in Trapp’s study, in this University of Virginia trial, those who exercised at the fastest pace slimmed down the most. Why? High-intensity exercise seems to trigger a flood of hormones, such as growth hormone, that make fat more readily available for energy.
Your Weekly Routine
To incorporate high-intensity exercise into your program, alternate two or three sprint-interval sessions a week with two longer, more leisurely workouts, like a 45- to 60-minute brisk walk, to avoid getting burned out and to minimize joint stress, recommends Debi Pillarella, fitness director of Community Hospital Fitness Pointe, in Munster, Indiana.
Here’s an effective interval routine that’s most easily performed on cardio machines but can also be done outdoors using a stopwatch. If you use the treadmill, vary the speed or the incline, or, if you’re an advanced exerciser, both. On a bike or elliptical machine, vary the resistance or speed, or both. Warm up for five minutes, and then for 20 minutes alternate 30 or 60 seconds of sprinting with one minute of recovery at an effortless pace. Cool down for five minutes. (For additional interval routines, click here.)
2. The New Ab Work
Remember the sit-up? It was abandoned by fitness buffs years ago in favor of the more subtle and efficient crunch. Now this: You can forget the crunch too. It’s only marginally effective at toning your midsection, research shows. And like the sit-up (though to a lesser extent), the crunch engages a slew of powerful hip muscles that don’t need extra help.
What does crave attention are your abdominals, aka your abs, a multi-layered collection of muscles that intertwine to form your waist. The deepest, the transverse abdominis, wraps around your spine like a corset, compressing your organs.
Muscle fibers, abdominal and otherwise, lose firmness and shape when they’re inactive: “They look more like gelatin than meat,” notes Kimberly Reich, PhD, an assistant professor at High Point University, in North Car-olina. So if your midsection jiggles, that’s why.
The plan: Twice a week perform a mix of exercises that, collectively, challenge your abs from multiple angles, advises Jessica Matthews, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Do one or two sets of each of these exercises, selected by Matthews, and within six weeks you’ll be able to show off a new, flatter belly.