By John Voelz, MA, DPT
What does your waistline say about your health? Is belly fat simply the price we pay for getting older? For women especially, it is a bit more complicated. Everything from age and inactivity to hormones and metabolism play a part in accumulating abdominal fat.
This picture illustrates what a growing waistline consists of. The superficial “subcutaneous” layer of abdominal fat is the most cosmetically unappealing while the deeper abdominal or “visceral” fat is associated with far more dangerous health consequences. Sandwiched between the two layers of fat is a wall of abdominal muscle, which becomes slack with a sedentary lifestyle.
There are many factors involved in the accumulation of belly fat. Eating too much and exercising to little are the obvious lifestyle choices that contribute, but other less controllable influences don’t help. With age comes a gradual decrease in lean muscle mass (and a lowered metabolism), however this can be combatted with strengthening exercise. Menopause, and its associated decrease in estrogen production, results in a redistribution of body fat, pushing more toward the midsection. A genetic component is even involved. Finally, weak abdominal muscles allow the internal visceral fat to push the abdominal wall outward, forming the actual rounding belly.
But is a belly dangerous to your health? The short answer is Yes. Visceral fat produces bad hormones and other substances that negatively affect blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity. The resulting health consequences include heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and various types of cancer. A large belly also puts a mechanical stress on the lumbar spine resulting in low back pain (think of how your back felt when you were pregnant!).
Is this hopeless? Not really. Diet is a major factor in reducing belly size — eating healthy and reducing portion sizes make a big difference. Aerobic/cardiovascular exercise will help use the calories stored as belly fat, and abdominal exercises will help to tighten up the abdominal wall. A combination of cardiovascular and strengthening exercise performed frequently throughout the week is the best way to begin reducing belly size; in other words, “a lot of sit-ups” won’t do it. There needs to be calorie expenditure to burn up the stored fat.