Ask an Expert: Losing that beer belly

Q: What does it take to get rid of a beer belly? Are there certain diet or exercise programs that work best?

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:

Congratulations on wanting to tackle your beer belly. Unfortunately, we guys tend to carry our extra body fat in the abdominal area. Excess fat in that location heightens the risk for a number of serious health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and myocardial infarction (heart attack caused by inadequate flood flow to part of the heart muscle).

As you whittle away the beer belly, your pants will fit better – and your general health will improve, too.

But here's a tough reality: Just as you can't pick where you want your body to store fat, you can't pick the spot for burning it, either. When losing weight, men and women generally notice a difference in the face first – and the stomach, waist and hips last.

It would be nice if you could get rid of a spare tire by doing sit-ups, but that sort of "spot reduction" is a myth. Sit-ups are great for strengthening the lower back and abdominal muscles, but they do nothing to the body fat in those areas. Aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise is the only way the body metabolizes fat.

However, building muscle throughout the body is a critical step for getting at that gut. The more muscle you add to your frame, the more efficient you will be at metabolizing fat while you're exercising aerobically.

After ten to 12 weeks of consistent exercise, you'll notice a change in that spare tire. Stay with the program, but increase your workout's frequency, intensity or time to keep pace with your increased fitness level.

Here are my suggestions for an initial three-month program:

1. Start by seeking your physician's advice regarding your exercise program. He or she may want to monitor some medications more closely (regular exercise can affect the dosage you need), do some baseline screening (cholesterol, blood pressure) to help chart your progress, guide you to the best activities for your situation or suggest a consultation with a fitness specialist.

2. Record your body composition. You can do this very simply by asking a friend or relative to measure your waist using a seamstress' tape measure. Or you can get sophisticated with a body composition analysis, a seven-site skinfold measurement that quantifies your body's percentage of muscle and bone versus fat.

Many fitness centers offer this service, as does Providence, through Providence Wellness and Fitness Services. Providence Health Plan Members receive a discounted rate.

3. Do a 30-minute cardiovascular workout, three to five times a week. If you can't begin with this much activity, slowly work your way up. Cardiovascular activities get your heart beating fast and make you break a sweat. Examples are fast walking, jogging, rowing, cross-country skiing, biking, stair-climbing and swimming.

4. Do some strength training two or three times a week. The amount of time you spend isn't terribly important; you just want to build muscle tissue. Use your body for resistance (push ups, pull ups, lunges) or use free or machine weights.

5. Stretch, three to five times a week. Slow, pain-free stretching can lengthen muscles that have contracted and shortened from the demands of strength training or cardiovascular workouts. Flexibility is the range of motion at a given joint. A flexible joint has the ability to move farther and more easily through its range of motion. Flexible joints and muscles perform better than tight ones and are less likely to be injured. You can do flexibility exercises anytime, anywhere, but they are safest performed when the body is warm. Hold each stretch for at least 15 seconds and remember not to bounce.

6. When you hit the inevitable plateau, take heart. It is a victory to not be gaining weight, as many Americans steadily do each year.

7. When you are firmly set in your new exercise routine, take a look at your eating habits – and, perhaps, your beer-drinking as well. Cutting the calories you eat and drink will help in your campaign to burn excess fat. For more information, check out our Ask an Expert: Counting calories article.

After 12 weeks, you'll be ready for another body composition analysis or look at the tape measure – and, perhaps, a tailor to take in your trousers.

January 2004