How to move it to lose it… 

In my last article I looked at why movement matters in our battle against chronic inflammation and age-related disease. This month I’m looking at how visceral fat can impact our health and why it is so important to reduce it.

The key to reducing inflammation is the production of chemical messengers or myokines in the skeletal muscle, which are secreted every time we move our bodies. So it stands to reason that the more muscle we have and the more effectively we move it, the better our chances of offsetting inflammation. I’ve heard it said that sitting is the new smoking and initially I felt this was a pretty extreme statement. How can sitting be so bad? But as I looked deeper into the research and in particular at the hallmarks of our modern lifestyle – insufficient physical activity, over-consumption of processed foods and excessive stress, it became clear that there’s more to the picture than just getting out of your chair and moving more.    

From our 30s on, we begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of three to eight per cent per decade, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia. It is a normal consequence of aging, probably not much noticed by us in our 30s, but by the time we reach our 60s this loss speeds up considerably.  And if we’ve been lucky enough to make it this far, we can really be plagued by age-related disease and health concerns. 

The good news is that we can build muscle well into our 80s. And we should do for all manner of reasons, such as preventing falls, remaining independent and feeling well in ourselves. Movement really matters. But perhaps even more importantly today, we need to tackle the issue of belly fat, because it is quite literally making us sick. Let’s delve a little deeper to understand just how it is making us sick and why it is necessary to shift it. 

Most of us have subcutaneous fat on our belly, this is both visible and pinchable. It is possible to be metabolically healthy and have this fat, it is relatively harmless. However, the fat we cannot see, which lies beneath our muscle, visceral fat, tells a different story.  

This visceral fat is in fact metabolically active and it secretes inflammatory molecules that affect insulin function, as well as metabolism of lipids and glucose. It is a silent killer, causing many metabolic diseases such as fatty liver, type two diabetes, heart disease and atherosclerosis to name but a few. Even before we develop these full-blown conditions, this fat can produce more ‘minor’ effects such as low mood, anxiety, stress, joint pain or brain fog. The tricky thing about this fat is that you could be thin on the outside yet still have high levels of visceral fat. However, if you are dealing with any chronic inflammatory conditions, it’s likely you have above optimal levels of this fat. 

Visceral fat not only creates inflammation and chronic health problems, it also impedes the efficiency and growth of our abdominal muscle. Current research shows that the more visceral fat we have, the more likely we will be to have reduced abdominal muscle. Simply put, the fat is taking up too much room internally. Visceral fat is literally causing the shrinkage of our abdominal muscles, not good news for our backs!  While muscle loss is part of the normal ageing process, the fact that our diet today is so high in highly processed foods  means we are storing more fat than ever before from an earlier age and reducing the potential for our muscle to grow bigger and stronger.

Today it is estimated that we are consuming between 50 to 100 times more sugar than our body has evolved to handle. The pancreas therefore has to produce a lot more insulin to get glucose into our cells to make energy; but the cells are overwhelmed by this load and block the glucose. They become less efficient at making energy and we feel tired all the time. Because the cells cannot utilise the glucose, they store it as toxic fat, which builds up around our internal organs. As another consequence, we then have all this free floating surplus insulin circulating in our bloodstream, causing metabolic disorders. 

If the body undertakes sufficient physical activity, we can reduce circulating levels of insulin, but when our cells are so hampered by toxic fat that they cannot make energy, we might often feel habitual fatigue, leaving us too tired to move and burn the fat. And so we sit more.

There is another hormone, cortisol, which is a major feature of this inflammatory landscape. We can have healthy diets and take time to be active, perhaps even getting in our 10,000 daily steps, but if our cortisol levels are too high we are really stressing our bodies. Normal levels of cortisol help in managing our fat stores, controlling our inflammatory response and our digestive processes and it is a very important hormone for the body. It also helps with short term memory, supports the detoxing of the liver and collaborates with the immune system to control the body’s glucose levels. However, when cortisol is excessive, for instance if we’ve had any long term stress or suffered trauma at any point in our lives; if we over-exercise or starve our bodies, we elevate our cortisol levels excessively and this causes insulin resistance, sleeplessness and fat storage. Excessive insulin and cortisol are responsible for holding on to this toxic fat that makes us so unwell. 

We need a two-pronged approach when it comes to exercise, as we need to ensure we can both build muscle effectively and reduce visceral fat.  One cannot be separated from the other.  So how do we tackle these belly blues? 

1. Eliminate ultra-processed foods

Firstly, and most importantly, eradicate or severely restrict all ultra-processed foods. They are poisoning our bodies. Read your food labels. If a food has more than four or five ingredients or if there are ingredients you struggle to pronounce, don’t eat it. Eliminating these foods has the greatest single impact on visceral fat loss. If you are managing pain, try reducing your processed carbohydrates such as: rice, pasta and grains and so on and see how this affects you. This is a sure way of reducing pain and inflammation. What you put in your mouth matters.

2. Resistance training is your friend

Undertaking resistance training can result in significant reduction of abdominal fat in a short time. It can create a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and it does not spike cortisol, once performed in short bursts. It promotes muscle growth, which increases your myokine production. If gyms aren’t for you then try a good core conditioning class which targets the abdominal core to help you become a more efficient fat burner. 

3. Don’t over-exercise

Increasing your cardio will not help you shift visceral fat. If your cortisol levels are elevated and if you decide to restrict calories as well, you are ensuring that your body will hold onto its fat reserves. By all means train for marathons or long-distance events or run your 10km if this is something you enjoy, but it will not shift visceral fat. If you need to shift this fat, you need resistance training or short bursts of maximum effort exercise. The best prescription would be taking a walk in nature but maybe adding some short bursts of brisk walking, jogging or sprinting, even jumping jacks. A minute of maximum effort is sufficient but repeat it and do so daily.  And for maximum effect do it with a friend or in a group…. it does wonders for reducing your cortisol levels.

4.  Eat enough protein
and fats

Protein is a muscle-building food and both protein and fats are necessary to help us feel satisfied, so we’re neither too hungry  and therefore triggering cortisol, nor overly full and triggering insulin. Good proteins and fats are essential nourishment for our body.  Keep your carbohydrates on the lower side, unless you have a very physically active life; remember what is not burned off is stored and anyone struggling with belly fat has more than enough in reserve already.  

Our health outcome is 80 per cent influenced by our lifestyle choices.  Make the right ones.  It’s not so much about adding years to our life, but rather life to our years.

Lorraine Dufficey

With 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, Lorraine Dufficey is trained in the classical True Pilates method, is a qualified Neuromuscular therapist and a Fascial trainer, and has a lifelong interest in health and wellbeing. As ‘West Cork Pilates’, she has been teaching mat classes in Clonakilty since 2005 and has a private studio in Rossmore where she teaches Reformer, Cadillac and Wunda chair for both fitness and for rehabilitation.

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