It is well known that Western cultures are struggling with rising obesity rates and the resultant ill effects on societal well-being and health care costs. Excess body fat is linked to an increased risk for several chronic health conditions. And, it is not just the total amount of body fat that is of concern, but where you tend to "carry" it on your body.
Excess body fat that is carried around your waist (i.e., "apple" shape) poses a greater health risk than extra body fat deposited in your hips and thigh region (i.e., "pear" shape). Furthermore, fat that lies deep within your abdomen and that surrounds your body's organs (e.g., liver and pancreas), known as visceral fat, poses a greater threat than subcutaneous fat, which is located just beneath your skin's surface. Research indicates that visceral fat is associated with the overproduction of hormones by your body that can promote such health complications as insulin resistance, among other ailments. Health risks associated with a higher percentage of visceral fat include:
- Metabolic Syndrome
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiovascular Disease
- High Blood Pressure
- Cancer (Breast and Colon)
- Sleep Apnea
- Gallbladder Disease
Genetics plays a large role in the amount of visceral fat you may have. Gender can also influence the accumulation of visceral fat due to hormonal differences. In general, men tend to store fat around their middle while women typically carry it in their hips and thighs - that is until menopause. After menopause, women start to deposit more fat at their waistline, rather than in the region of their hips and thighs due to decreases in estrogen levels.
Fortunately, research has shown that adherence to a healthy lifestyle that incorporates proper dietary practices and regular physical activity is associated with lower levels of visceral fat accumulation. One recent study published in the journal Obesity found that after initial weight loss from adherence to a caloric-restricted diet, participants who engaged in 40 minutes of either aerobic or resistance training activities 2 days per week were less likely to experience significant increases in abdominal visceral fat percentages one year later than their non-exercising counterparts and those subjects who exercised less frequently.
It should be noted, however, that even though as little as 80 minutes per week of physical activity was associated with preventing regain of visceral fat in the active participants, the exercising subjects had gained some weight overall during the follow-up period. Therefore, for the purposes of weight maintenance, it is recommended that you adhere to the current guidelines which state that:
- 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity exercise is needed to prevent weight gain
- 250-300 minutes/week of moderate-intensity exercise is needed to lose weight
- 200-300 minutes/week of moderate-intensity exercise is needed to prevent weight regain after loss.
How do you know if you are at an increased risk for having excessive amounts of visceral fat? Measure your waist circumference. To do this, take a tape measurer around the narrowest part of your torso. Keep your abdomen relaxed while you do this, do not tighten your stomach muscles and do not pull the tape tightly around your middle. Values greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men are associated with an increased risk.
If you are overweight or obese, strive to not only lose weight, but to reduce the amount of visceral fat that you are carrying. As a result you will improve your overall health and decrease your risk for several chronic health conditions. Consult your physician to discuss a weight loss program that will work best for you.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, February 2009, "Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults."
Labels: abdominal fat, exercise, subcutaneous fat, visceral fat