If you're after the best exercises to lose belly fat, we've got some good and bad news for you. The bad news first—there's no set magic movements to help you tone up your abs. But the good news is that combining the exercise you enjoy with a nutritious diet, as well as reduced stress levels and plenty of rest, will help you achieve this goal in a way that is also beneficial to your overall health.
We've called on the experts to explain why exercises to specifically spot reduce fat around your abdominal area are a complete myth, and how the answer is actually to bring your overall fat percentage down into a healthy range for you. Because, while we whole-heartedly believe in body positivity, there is evidence that too much abdominal fat can negatively impacting your health—and increase your risk of the likes of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Before you Google how to lose a stone in a month, it's worth remembering that healthy, sustainable weight loss takes time. Our experts have revealed how nourishing, balanced meals are as important as physical activity. However, they also share which types of exercise—from spinning to Pilates and barre—can be really effective in strengthening your core. You'll want to stock up on the best running shoes for women as well as the best sports bras...
The best exercises to lose belly fat—why they're a myth
Our experts were unanimous in their insistence that, while certain movements may help tone the ab area, no specific exercises will help you shift belly fat alone. "It is a myth that you can spot reduce fat in a particular area," says Jenny Hutchins, personal trainer and founder of JNY Personal Training (opens in new tab). "If you want to lose fat in one area—say, your tummy—then you will need to lower your overall body fat percentage." The healthy range for women, in their forties and fifties, is between 14% to 27%—if you want to check where you're currently at, you can get a good idea with one of these best body fat scales.
In order to lower your body fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. "That's burning more calories than you consume," explains Hutchins. "The best way to do this is through a combination of regular exercise—which increases your daily energy expenditure—and also reducing the number of calories you eat as part of a nutritious, balanced diet." Aiming for a 15 to 20% deficit on your daily calorie burning is recommended by personal trainer Aimee Victoria Long (opens in new tab). "This means it’s sustainable and you’ll maintain the results," she explains. "Bit by bit, your body fat will start to lower. It may take longer in some areas, but stick with the process and you will see the results."
As a reminder, a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week. Never be tempted to go too low. "We all have a different personal blue print when it comes to body fat and women in particular should try to sustain at a healthy level in order to support ovulation and uterine protection," warns Maria Eleftheriou, head of barre at Psycle (opens in new tab). "Additionally, fat tissues play an important part in immune function."
Additionally, we want stress that our bodies are all completely individual. "Some people may hold more fat around their legs and bum, whereas others may do so more in their stomach or arms," points out Long. And not only is it totally ok—it's completely normal and the amazing way in which our bodies were naturally designed. "Women tend to hold more fat around their midline as it protects and supports in pregnancy," points out Chloe Trigg, head of strength and conditioning at BLOK (opens in new tab).
The 6 workouts to help tone your abs
1. Core exercises
“While there aren't specific exercises that will help with fat loss around the tummy area, there are some key exercises you can do to strengthen your core," says Ryan Baronet, head of strength at Psycle. "These, along with a solid nutritional strategy, can help make your stomach look more toned. However, just like any other muscle group, your core needs to be trained in different planes of motion, multiple times per week, with varied sets, reps and different loads."
How you work your core is down to you—and there's far more options than a standard crunch. "My favorite exercises for this are plank holds, side planks and woodchops," shares Long. The latter movement involves holding a weight—such as one of these best dumbbells—and twisting your torso, raising it up to the side with straight arms and rising onto your toes. Then reverse the twist, and bring the weight diagonally down to the opposite side. You should use your core to control the movement.
2. Spinning and running
Cardio is also one of the best exercises to lose belly fat. "Intense exercise, such as spinning and running, can be a vehicle to many destinations," says Alana Murrin, head of ride at Psycle. "This includes body composition, along with improved performance and benefits to cardiovascular health as well as mental wellbeing.
"These forms of exercise on their own, without an effective nutritional strategy, won’t necessarily help weight management—but they can be an excellent tool towards creating a calorie deficit." Which, as explained before, can help with overall fat loss if done regularly. One of the best fitness trackers can be a good guide as to whether you're sweating hard enough.
"If you’re looking for a specific form of exercise that will really strengthen your mid-section then Pilates is amazing," says Long. The practice strengthens the body, with a particular emphasis on your mid-section. "You spend a large number of sessions under tension, and your core is working for the majority of that time," she explains.
On top of this, Pilates can also help ease stiff joints and is particularly beneficial for strengthening the pelvic floor, helping prevent organ prolapse which currently affects around half of post-menopausal women. If you're doing it at home, all you need to do is roll out one of the best yoga mats.
4. Strength training
While it might be tempting to focus on core exercises and cardio, it's crucial not to neglect other types of fitness when it comes to your abs. "With fat loss, it's important to challenge your body in unexpected ways," notes Trigg. "That's why you should incorporate different types of movement into your routine—so as well as high-intensity workouts, do some strength training too. This will help build muscle and regulate your metabolism alongside fat burning exercises." Which as well as running and spinning, can include activities like HIIT and boxing—essentially, anything that gets your heart rate up.
Not sure where to get started with building strength? "I encourage everyone to do some form of resistance training—and you can use weights or one of your best resistance bands," says Lydia Arnoux, trainer at Barrecore (opens in new tab). "This builds muscle, helping to create shape and a lean look as well as honing strength, which can also help reduce injury and build bone density." Indeed, ab definition aside, strength training is particularly important when it comes to fitness for women over 50, since as we age our muscle mass and bone density naturally decrease.
When comparing walking versus running, both can be useful for promoting fat loss— however, the former is a great lower impact form of movement if you are injured or beginning your fitness journey. "Posture is key when it comes to transforming your daily walk into a fat-burning workout," says personal trainer Lucy Gornall (opens in new tab). "Remember to lengthen your spine through your neck, tuck your tummy in to engage your core and take short yet quick strides. For maximum calorie burning while using walking for weight loss add a few hills into your route."
It doesn't just have to be yoga, but any gentle movement or activity—like walking in nature or one of the best meditation apps—that will help lower your stress levels. "The stress hormone cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland, and does have its uses—such as helping us to respond to danger and reducing inflammation—but too much is not a good thing," warns Arnoux. Indeed, it can sabotage overall fat loss goals, particularly around your tummy. "Stress can also take a toll on the abdominal section," explains Eleftheriou. "For instance, higher levels of cortisol have been associated with abdominal weight gain."
So don't overdo the HIIT. "High intensity exercise can cause a huge production of cortisol, with our body unaware if it's running from danger to survive or sweating it out at the gym," explains Arnoux. For that matter, less is often more when it comes to your gym or at-home workouts. "My recommendation is quality over quantity," adds Eleftheriou. "If you are exhausted and running round trying to squeeze in seven workouts a week—but running on empty—you won't achieve sustainable results."
That's where bringing things down a notch can actually help you achieve your goal. "Incorporate some lower impact and lower intensity workouts into your routine," suggests Arnoux. "Walking, mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and barre can all help calm you down. Don't forget, also, about sleep—a lack of it has been linked to an increase in cortisol and huger levels, as well as lower concentration and mood." If you want to train, it's best to make it short and sweet. "Even if your workouts are only 20 minutes on a busy day, if the quality of what you are doing is focused you will still sustain your results,” adds Eleftheriou. The best workout motivation is to move in a way that you enjoy.
How does excess belly fat impact your health?
Fat loss goals is a personal choice and should be tailored to you—however, it's worth being aware of the dangers of carrying a lot of fat around the tummy area. "There are two main issues with excess abdominal fat," says Dr Shireen Kassam, consultant hematologist and founder of Plant Based Health Professionals (opens in new tab). "Firstly, the fat cells themselves are metabolically active and produce hormones such as estrogen, growth hormones such as insulin like growth factor and inflammatory chemicals. This leads to a state of chronic inflammation and hormone dysregulation, which increases the risk of a number of chronic conditions.
"Secondly, excess abdominal fat increases the chances that you have excess visceral fat, that is fat around the body organs such as the liver, pancreas and heart. It is this type of fat that is really dangerous regardless of whether you have excess abdominal fat or not, but the two often go hand in hand. This visceral fat affects how the cells function because they too get clogged up with fat. The main issue this creates is insulin resistance, meaning that insulin can no longer function properly to allow glucose into the cells, which has widespread negative impacts on health.
"In general, carrying too much abdominal and visceral fat significantly increases the risk of both physical and mental health conditions. The biggest risks are heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and fatty liver disease. Too much fat can lead to hormone dysregulation, negatively affecting fertility, menstrual cycles and menopause symptoms in women. In addition, there is also an increased risk of common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety."
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to Womanandhome.com she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss.
While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.
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