Strengthen muscles to fight back.
Here’s another reason to fight the battle of the bulge: fat that lies deep in the abdomen is linked not only to heart disease and diabetes, but also to bone health. “Men with increased deep belly fat, the visceral fat that surrounds our organs, have decreased bone strength,” says Dr. Miriam Bredella, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Breaking down the bulge
Subcutaneous fat, just beneath your skin, is the kind you can grab to “pinch an inch.” While too much isn’t good for you, subcutaneous fat does have some molecules that actually benefit health, such as adiponectin, which may have an anti-inflammatory effect on blood vessel linings and decrease the risk of insulin resistance.
The fat you can’t see, called visceral fat, is beneath the abdominal wall. This type of fat secretes cytokines, which cause inflammation associated with heart disease and insulin resistance. Visceral fat is also implicated in dementia, asthma, and colorectal cancer.
New research led by Dr. Bredella found that visceral obesity is also a risk factor for bone loss and decreased bone strength in men. She speculates that it’s because visceral obesity is associated with reduced secretion of growth hormone, which is essential for bone health, and because of the inflammatory cytokines secreted by the visceral fat cells.
What you can do
The good news is that greater muscle mass improves bone health. “It creates stronger bones, as though you were walking around with weights. In addition, muscle pull on the bones, in the course of daily activity or during exercise, causes new bone formation at the site of muscle pull to strengthen it, resulting in greater bone density and strength,” says Dr. Bredella.
To improve bone health she recommends a healthy diet containing adequate amounts of calcium, from sources such as milk or calcium-fortified orange juice. Try to get 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day from food, and if you can’t, take a low-dose calcium supplement to make up the difference. You can also improve bone health with weight-bearing exercise and with resistance training.
Targeting your abdominal muscles with exercises such as sit-ups will not get rid of visceral fat. However, aerobic exercise such as brisk walking can help reduce fat all over. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.