4 Ways to Shed Belly Fat and Protect Against Heart Failure

Having a big waist puts your heart at risk—even if you're not overweight.

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If you're like most women, you probably know whether you're shaped like an apple (big waist, small hips, thin legs) or a pear (small waist, big hips and thighs). And you probably have heard that it's better healthwise to be a pear. Having too much fat on your belly increases your risk of age-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes. In fact, a study published yesterday in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure indicates that having a large waist size ups your risk of heart failure, a condition that's often fatal. A second study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that exercise doesn't harm those with heart failure and could actually provide some benefits.

The analysis of the belly fat research, based on data from two Swedish population studies, showed that being overweight or obese increased the risk of heart failure in men but didn't in women—unless they had a large waist size. A woman with a normal body mass index of 25 whose waist size increased by 4 inches over the years wound up with a 15 percent greater risk of heart failure than those whose waist sizes remained the same. (A 5-foot, 4-inch woman who weighs 146 pounds has a BMI of 25.) Medical experts recommend that women maintain a waist size of less than 35 inches to reduce their risk of chronic diseases.

[Here's how to measure your waist size.]

Where you carry your fat is largely determined by your genes. (I can thank my mother for my ample butt and thighs.) But there are certain things you can do to help redistribute fat away from your belly.

[Read more on why excess belly fat is so dangerous.]

Try the following:

1. Exercise. You can't exercise to spot reduce, but getting active on most days of the week can help you shed excess pounds. And often the fat our body sheds first comes from our belly: nature's way of getting rid of what's bad for us. Abdominal crunches can help tone muscles to make your stomach look flatter, but to truly get rid of fat, you have to burn it off through aerobic activity like running, walking, or biking.

2. Be a mindful eater. Researchers are currently investigating whether teaching women to really pay attention to what they eat can help redistribute body fat from the waist to the hips. Other studies, though, have shown that mindful eating can help with weight loss efforts.

[Here's how mindful eating could help you lose weight.]

3. Get adequate amounts of sleep. Too little sleep (less than six hours) or too much (more than eight hours) results in an excess production of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone promotes the storage of fat in the belly. A possible reason: Your body, knowing it's in a state of stress, shuttles fat off to a storage place where it can be easily burned off for fuel in an emergency. Fat on the hips and thighs isn't released from cells as quickly, which is why we often refer to it as "stubborn fat."

[Here are 10 ways to get better sleep and maybe cure insomnia.]

4. Reduce stress. Penciling in 15 minutes a day for relaxation can lower your cortisol levels, helping you shed belly fat. Deep breathing, a stroll outdoors under the blossoming trees, or a bubble bath can help you leave the world behind.