We all want to know the secret to shedding belly fat. Armed with expert knowledge, exercise and nutrition scientist Kathleen Alleaume on why a blend of both HIIT and steady-state training will give you the best results.
Belly fat can be stubborn, and at the same time, dangerous. But although we know that ‘spot training’ is near impossible, some experts tout high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as the best way to torch stomach fat. And it’s easy to see why: a workout that can be done and dusted in less than 30 minutes (depending on how hard you push yourself) will help you burn more calories from stored body fat compared to steady-state activity (e.g. jogging or cycling).
Before you start alternating kettlebells and jump squats with recovery intervals, let’s look more closely at whether HIIT is the best option for targeting fat around your midsection.
Can HITT reduce belly fat?
A recent study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine showed that high-intensity intervals (above 90 percent peak heart rate) significantly reduced total, abdominal, and visceral fat mass (fat stored around the abdominal organs) in overweight individuals.
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However, the authors did not mention whether HIIT was better at targeting belly fat than steady-state training. When it comes to cardiovascular health benefits, a similar study found that when the total energy expenditure was equal, HIIT and moderate steady state training produced similar reductions in weight, overall body fat and total cholesterol – exactly what you want to reduce your risk of a heart disease. Indeed, both training protocols favour changes in body composition and improve health outcomes, however the real benefit from HIIT is its efficiency. In other words, the shorter, more intense workouts will give you the same results in less time.
Blend both workouts
Just because short bursts of high-intensity intervals burn calories from body fat in half the time, it doesn’t mean more intervals are necessarily better. Because these kinds of workouts are more taxing on your body, you shouldn’t do them as often as you would moderate -intensity, generally defined as continuous effort at around 65-70 percent peak heart rate, such as an easy jog.
The best results for an all-around fitness regime come from a combination of HIIT workouts with steady-state cardio and resistance training to build and maintain muscle. Most exercise experts recommend doing HIIT no more than two to three times a week on non-consecutive days to avoid injury, burnout, disrupted sleep or low mood. So, in a perfect world, your exercise routine might look something like this:
Day 1: 30-minute HIIT.
Day 2: 30-40- minutes moderate cardio workout (e.g. brisk walk, cycling, light jog).
Day 3: Rest or light activity (e.g. yin yoga, foam roller).
Day 4: 30-minute HIIT.
Day 5: 30-40- minute moderate cardio workout (e.g. brisk walk, cycling, light jog).
Day 6: Rest or light activity (e.g. stretching).
Day 7: 30-40- minute moderate cardio workout or rest.
How to choose the right exercise intensity
The answer really depends on your fitness level and goals. HIIT is considered safe for most people if correctly prescribed. Beginners can build up endurance for HIIT training by starting with moderate-intensity aerobic interval training, such as running for one minute, followed by walking for two minutes, then repeat.
These run/walk intervals involve changing up your intensity just enough to push you out of your comfort zone, but not so far that you’re completely breathless. As you get fitter, you can gradually ramp up the intensity of each interval from week to week. Remember, the more you vary your routine, the better your overall fitness and adaptability to burn fat more efficiently (even at rest).
It’s important to note that belly fat has a lot more to do with what’s on your plate than the type of exercise you choose. In other words, it’s not the calories you burn that matter, it’s what you do next? Healthy eating is an important part of weight loss, too, and pairing a balanced diet with a balanced training regime is the best way to ensure weight loss success.
The biggest problem with exercise is compensatory eating post-workout. Scientists studying the issue agree that people who worked out don’t lose as much weight as expected and some even gained weight after starting an exercise program.
The reason? It’s likely the participants consciously or unconsciously compensate for the exercise by engaging in other behaviours that make losing weight more difficult, such as increasing their food intake or eating less healthily after having exercised.
So, people hoping to bust belly fat with a consistent sweat sesh should also pay close attention to what they eat, and skip the second helping, no matter how tempting.
Kathleen Alleaume is an exercise and nutrition scientist and founder of The Right Balance. Follow her @therightbalance_