The Flipping 50 community tells me what you most want answers to and I respond. Of all the body-part related questions I get about arms, hips, joints, menopause belly fat is by far the most frequently topic. Spoiler alert: Menopause belly fat is common, not mandatory.
The simplest answer to defining abdominals is twofold:
- Shed fat
- Tone core muscles
But in or beyond midlife there’s more. You have to look at the why behind the fat stored in the belly. You can dive into nearly 125 million Dr. Google provided articles and still not have the answer if you don’t know the real underlying cause of menopause belly fat.
The Flat Belly Advantage
Wider hips and pelvis give you a slight advantage. You may never have thought your wide hips are an advantage except in childbirth before! Your circumference measurements won’t necessarily be better but with a wide hip “box” women do tend to have a flatter belly. On the other hand those small narrow hips that have always been a bragging point may now be your nemesis.
Core Muscles That Matter
Four muscle groups make up your core.
Rectus Abdominus– a pair of muscles running from the ribs to the pelvis
Transverse Abdominus– The deepest ab muscle wraps around you like a belt and supports the spine
Internal and External Obliques – The external obliques run diagonally down and form the outer layer of abdominals on your side. The internal obliques are just underneath the external layer and run diagonally up your side.
Erector Spinae– Muscles that run parallel to your spin
Obstacles to Toned Belly (and a Pain-Free Back)
Two types of fat are blocking your path. Subcutaneous fat – your pinch-an-inch (or more) fat – atop your ab muscles. Visceral fat woven between your internal organs like a marbled steak- lies below muscle. Visceral fat is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Are you at risk?
Self-Test 1: Women should have a waist measurement no bigger than 35 inches (measure at your natural waist- smallest part of your midsection)
Self-Test 2: A waist-to-hip ratio of 0.8 is recommended by some experts as a way to predict your risk from visceral fat. In other words your waist should be no more than 80% of your hip circumference. Measure both. Do math.
If visceral fat is significant not only does it prevent a flat belly and increase your risk of disease, but it adds stress to the lower back. The “apple” shape body is at greatest risk for low back pain.
The muscles of the core work in integration to support you in five tasks. You’re already doing most of them to get out of bed in the morning. A good core-focused program includes exercises for each. The After 50 Fitness Formula advocates at least five core exercises every workout, one each for:
- Lateral flexion
- Back extension
- Forward flexion
What Does Not Work for Strong Back, Abs, or a Flat Belly?
Thanks to the plethora of information on the internet and the longevity of it, myths and mistakes are perpetuated. If a fit, lean, waist-whittled trainer provides the information and it’s working for her, you want to believe it. There is a degree of “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.” You saw it or read it published online so it must be true. Unfortunately, in a era where anyone with a PC can create content and give herself a title of authority, you have to be a critical thinker.
Many of the cues and exercises that follow do not create greater strength in the core. They either weaken the core muscles or put you at risk for a lower back injury.
- “Suck the belly button in”
- “Draw your navel toward your back”
- Exercises that fail the risk:reward test include:
- Leg lifts/lowers
- Flutter kicks (supine – on your back)
- Machine abdominal exercises (forward flexion, rotation)
You never want to be in the crowd that says, “I was in the best shape of my life right before I got hurt.” That is the telltale sign that what it was you were doing was building up to that injury. The only real exceptions to “sudden” injuries are those that involve trauma (from a fall or blow) or ruptured discs that occur without warning.
To avoid a ruptured disc, wait about 60 minutes after rising in the morning to exercise. Disks between your vertebrae plump overnight while you’re horizontal. That intervertebral pressure combined with additional pressure from both movement and moment exercise (planks, shoveling, vacuuming) more potentially injurious. About 90 percent of the pressure dissipates within an hour of being upright. Gravity acts on the spine while you’re having coffee or journaling.
This increase of pressure happens for everybody regardless of fitness level or size. You’re at risk whether or not you feel stiff in the morning. You are at greater risk if you have a large frame with thicker bones. Ruptured disks give no warning. Even stretches you do in bed put you at risk.
Are Abdominal Exercises the Answer to Menopause Belly Fat?
Before you get the quick fix I know you want, you have to consider the real problem. If it’s not a muscle problem then an exercise answer won’t work. Are you bloated, gaining fat, or really have no muscle tone? First things first.
If it’s not a muscle problem then an exercise won’t fix it.
Then, no matter what your answer is, your belief about spot reduction and spot toning must be addressed! You can’t spot reduce. More exercise on a specific area will not “burn” or “melt” fat from that area. In fact, there is research to show bicycling for instance increases the amount of fat stored in the thighs and hips. Since the body is using muscles in this region more, it intuitively will store more of everything there so you have it when you need it. The take-away? If you want to have thin thighs, yes exercise them but don’t OVER exercise them. Likewise with the core. Don’t over do it. Usethe core but don’t only add more ab exercises.
You can spot tone muscle. Yes, you want strong muscles for all of the type of movements your core performs.
Doing core exercises to eliminate bloating won’t solve the problem. You may temporarily find some relief and in fact if you do rotation movements (as in certain yoga poses) you may enhance elimination. But you won’t have found the reason – the root cause – why bloating occurred in the first place.
All Your Fat is Going to Your Belly?
Look at which kind: pinch-an-inch or deep belly fat? Burning fat with exercise on a specific area is not possible. Your body loses fat all over. The types of exercise that result in fat loss are those that use major muscle groups whether in cardiovascular exercise or strength training. Dietary changes (not A DIET) can also help you.
You need adequate micronutrients for a killer metabolism. You may want to look at your DNA for hints at what works for you. I found reducing fat and increasing carbs (yah me!) along with high protein leads to easier weight loss and more energy. It’s in my genetics (thanks, mom)! You better believe I’m complying.
You Have No Core Muscle?
Signs you truly do need to focus on core are chronic lower back pain or hip issues, or lack of muscle if you do have a waist. You bend over to pick up the dog food and you’re always cautious because of past problems. You vacuum and feel your core.
Life requires a strong core. Whether you want to perform well at pickle ball, golf, or triathlon or you want to do life without injury easier, it’s about your core. Core exercise is not the answer to a bikini body though. Not alone.
A small fraction of your exercise should indeed be core. If 5% of your workouts were core, during a 45-minute session you’d do 2 ½ minutes of core. If you do the rest of the workout correctly, you should have already been engaging your core. A 20 or 30-minute core class is not going to give you “more” results. If you need core-tutoring? I’m all in favor of a short period of time focused on foundation-building. I’ve had to do it.
Recovering from a back injury when I was 26 I religiously spent 15 minutes a day (once I was out of acute pain) doing core exercises for about 3 months. Then I began swimming, weight training, and shifted my core to more functional useof the core. I still to this day perform some kind of core exercise daily.
The sexy fun exercises you see at the gym? They are not the ones that really matter. In fact jumping into those – or those featured on multiple “ab workouts” I’ve ordered online to test – no one should do without first having a super strong foundation. Many of the “circus act” exercises themselves or the speed at which they’re done are an injury waiting to happen.What Really Causes Menopause Belly Fat?
Stress-induced cortisol is consistently higher in women with menopause belly fat. Yes, reduced sex hormones (particularly estrogen) plays a role. But when estrogen dominance is present due to high cortisol levels blocking progesterone then the relative high estrogen is to blame.
Essentially it boils down to stress and that nasty stress hormone cortisol. It makes your body become a belly fat hoarder.
This is true for both overweight/obese women and those with healthy weight. Skinny fat, anyone?
Here’s what I propose, and this is important. You have to drop the label. The identity of “menopause belly fat” assumes way too much. There really is not a strong correlation with menopause and belly fat except in the United States. In other, especially Eastern countries, there’s a much lower incidence.
Stress belly fat has caught up with you. It was years in the making. It doesn’t matter that you were always in great shape or you were a fitness instructor. If you indulged what you think is a sweet tooth, skimped on sleep, failed to eat veggies and stay hydrated, those things are catching up with you now. If you exercised more than your hormones want to and kept doing more of what wasn’t working? Sister, I hate to say it but you contributed to the problem. It’s not your fault. It’s what you were taught!
If you refuse to give up wine (even for a short time) or foods your gut may be rejecting right now that too contributes to belly fat stress. It compounds the emotional, environmental, and day-to-day stressors you have. When hormones change there’s always at least in part truth that what you’ve been doing really wasn’t ever working. You just never had a wake up call ring quite so loud. You can change your habits and get better results.
Where Does the Stress Belly Fat Come From? All Sources:
- Stress – emotional from your perception of overwhelm
- Too much exercise
- Too little exercise
- Too little sleep
- Too much of the wrong food
- Too little of the right food
- Sugar (by all it’s pseudo names as well as “fake” sugar in those little yellow, pink, and blue packets)
- Processed and high glycemic index carbohydrates – they turn rapidly to sugar (even too much fruit can do this for some of us “sensitive” people)
- Hormones that are imbalanced due to the habits in this list above this line
When cortisol and insulin team up it’s the perfect storm for belly fat. Cortisol wreaks havoc with blood sugar. If you drink too much coffee, add artificial sweeteners or sugar in your diet, gotta have your wine, and or eat the wrong carbohydrates at the wrong time, belly fat will find you easier.
How are you unintentionally self-sabotaging your belly fat banishing plan? These are the most common habits that contribute.
- “Treats” – Think “Everything in moderation,” or sugar-free, low fat, fruit is always healthy? The wrong thing or the right at the wrong time can contribute to belly fat.
- Staying up late and or getting up early– Lack of sleep evolves into more caffeine, no food, and cravings. Even if you willpower through that the cortisol swing you’re on reaches your belly.
- Working out harder than your hormones want to – Your body will tell you if it’s working or not. Use the data: tired, grumpy, sleepless, over hungry, looking haggard instead of refreshed, constipation or diarrhea.
- Dehydration- Is another form of stress your body has to deal with.
- Wine – “I deserve this,” especially on empty with already low blood sugar.
Non-Core Exercises for Menopause Belly Fat
Each of these exercises targets core muscles and encourages bracing. Going fast at almost anything requires a strong core. You can say both that a strong core will help you go faster, and that going faster will support a strong, and flat core.
- Sprinting (interpret as walking fast if you don’t actually “run”)
- Spinning with resistance (hill climbing)
- Boxing (and other martial arts)
Notice anything about these exercises? When you perform them naturally your hands come away from your core. You’re using them over your head, projecting away from your body. When your lower and upper body limbs each do something unique – leveraging and moving for instance as in boxing, or kicking and pulling as in swimming – your core has no choice but to be strong to keep you centered and provide the strength from which your leverage will come.
You don’t swim thinking, “brace yourself” or “draw your navel in,” you just engage. These are the best types of activities. If 60 is the new 30, bracing and stabilization are the new sit-ups.
Menopause belly fat loss requires strength, cardio, and core specific work. You can get a two-for-one with many activities!
Yoga is a similar core-required exercise. So is riding a horse or a bike. Every time you hit a golf ball your core braces. So you’re both using your core and becoming keenly aware that by getting a stronger core you’ll be better at all of those activities. (Getting in the fairway is on you.) You’ll also get better at picking up children, pets, and water softening salt without injury.
Additionally, though activities like yoga may have lower energy expenditure, if you love it and it reduces stress for you? It supports a reduction in stress hormones and thus the release of excess fat and weight. Lowering your stress level is as necessary as performing core exercise for reducing belly fat.
The #1 BEST Non-Core Exercise for Menopause Belly Fat?
If you think the answer is a plank, comment below!
Actually its not.
Strength training your whole body is your BFF. If you increase your lean muscle you’ll increase your body’s ability to burn fat, aka you increase your metabolism. You increase your ability to go faster or longer stronger doing anything from housework to a hike. All activity counts. Menopause belly fat responds well to weight training.
Done right, all exercise is core exercise. Weight training, however, goes to the head of the class. In fact for strength and conditioning coaches, “core” exercises refer to squats, rowing, pressing movements that use major muscles and require a strong core to complete.
If you want a flat belly, a strong core, to eradicate cellulite, and you’re not strength training, start. If you’re strength training and not sure you’re really reaping all the rewards, get help!
Want support Strength Training support? Get details on my next launch of STRONGER. Imagine where you could be in 12 weeks, even after just one week of having a plan. Doors only open a few times a year so get on the list to be notified when doors open with the best early bird rates.
[As of April 2019 there are two versions to choose from for strength-only and a fully integrated cellulite-targeted fitness program]
Two groups of subjects (obese midlife babes) were given either high or low intensity exercise that result in the equal caloric burn. One group had a clear advantage in belly fat loss.
Higher intensity exercise equated to more reduced visceral belly fat. Researchers associated it with growth hormone production. Growth hormone is a powerful fat mobilizer.
Sleep and strength training are two additional ways to increase your growth hormone production.
How you choose to exercise influences belly fat. There is a higher correlation between running and reduced visceral fat compared to cycling. Running, boxing, fast walking (that is HIIT-worthy) may have a greater influence on belly fat than swimming, rowing, or cycling (non-weight bearing activity). However, safe exercise avoids joint overuse injuries so include a variety of activity.
I’ve always cross-trained, but am a runner at heart. Not fast, mind you, just contemplative and I love it. I fell in love with triathlon in my 20s but never participated until my 40s. One of the reasons it’s an appealing activity now is the balanced use of joints and muscles increases benefits without flirting with overuse for any specific body parts. You don’t need to do triathlon, per say, but you do want to find a way to cross train in the logic of triathlon.
What No One Tells You
There is an underlying consideration often not addressed in research or in fitness programs.
It depends. You have to know you.
If you’re highly stressed and cortisol is present, overdoing high intensity exercise could push your body to store more fat (just in case). So, you’ve been doing those killer workouts regularly since New Year’s and you’re just tired? Slow it down for a while. You’re likely tipping your cortisol scale and not about to tighten your belt a notch or move the scale if that’s the case.
“The wrong intensity or amount of exercise (for you) will increase body fatness. For midlife women, this fat weight often ends up in the belly.”
Hormone-specific assessments are not yet included in consultations or intake sessions with fitness professionals. The Flipping 50 Specialist is increasing the number of fitness professionals cognizant of the integration of hormones. If you or a trainer want more information visit flippingfifty.com/specialist.
An interesting point: A recent study showed where you live could impact how you deal with stress. Subjects in a rural location did not experience increased belly fat with stress, while urban-dwelling subjects did. City-dweller? Get out of the city and into nature to offset the stress of the concrete jungle. [Clearly it’s sign you should come to the Flipping 50 Live Retreat!]
What’s a Beyond 50 Beyond Stressed Babe to Do?
Go back one or two steps. Women often need to do less before they do more so they can optimize cortisol levels. Exchange your bootcamps sessions for walks. Shift from hour-long sessions to 20 or 30 minutes at most. Eventually, with a lower stress level, return to short bouts of high intensity (HI). HI will help, but not while your body feels like it’s under fire (and I’m not even talking about hot flashes).
Should you do core exercise? Yes. Should you make conscious, informed decisions about what you put in your body? Yes. Should you increase your awareness of optimal sleep habits and then apply them? Yes. Should you do HI exercise? It depends. Eventually yes, but it may not be the answer for you right now. Should you find ways to reduce or cope with stressors in your life? Yes. Does that mean increasing joy, laughter, and the frequency of smiles that reach your eyes? Yes.
Is dieting and more exercise (core or otherwise) the answer? No.
Menopause belly fat is a multifactorial problem. It needs to be addressed by a multi-faceted approach.
Trying to crunch, sit-up, or otherwise core exercise away menopause belly fat would be like taking a hammer to a screw.
Would you like more support for your belly fat? In the exclusive members-only Flipping 50 Café master classI share the belly fat and core facts, a chart of over 50 core exercises I’ve vetted for safety, effectiveness, and modifications to those that might stress joints so you’ve got options if needed.
Coming soon is the in-gym version of Core Exercise to be shared exclusively with Café members.