Ah, the middle-age-man belly. You can try to run it off, but cardio alone won't be nearly as successful at battling the bulge as combining cardio with strength training, says a new study published in the journal Obesity.
As we get older, our bodies tend to lose muscle mass and hold onto fat, says Rania Mekary, the study’s lead author. So while cardio may still help you lose weight, some of that weight loss may come from muscle rather than from the fat accumulating around your midsection.
Strength training, on the other hand—either with free weights, machines, or resistance bands—builds lean muscle while also helping to burn fat. In Mekary's study, men over 40 who added 20 minutes of weight training to their daily routines had less of an increase in age-related abdominal fat over the next 12 years than men who added 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity.
"You have to do a lot more cardio to cover the benefits of just a little bit of weight training," she says. In fact, study participants who lifted daily all fared about the same, belly fat–wise, regardless of whether or not they got the recommended 25 minutes per day of aerobic exercise as well.
This doesn't mean you should ditch your regular cardio workouts, though. "We are not trying to discredit the advantages of aerobic activity," says Mekary. "It's still very important for many health outcomes—for the prevention of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, for example."
In other words, you need cardio to keep your heart and lungs healthy—and to not suck at activities involving endurance and speed. But you need strength training on top of that to make sure the calories you're burning are ridding you of fat and not muscle.
The quickest way to see results is to start a routine that combines a few weekly sessions of moderate aerobic activity—jogging, swimming, or walking hills, for example, done at 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate—with three to four weight-training sessions each week, says Mekary.
And 20 minutes is all you need per strength workout, she adds, as long as you make the most of it and don't dilly dally between sets. "It doesn't matter so much what exact moves you're doing, as long as you're working different muscle groups," she says. She recommends three sets of upper body moves, like pushups, pull-ups, and dips, and three sets of lower body or core exercises, like squats, planks, and lunges, per session.
"For each move, do three sets of 12 and then switch to a different muscle group," she says. "That way you can rest the muscle without having to rest your entire body."
To rev up your calorie burn even further, tack some plyometric moves onto your weight-room routine, says personal trainer Cris Dobrosielski, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Performing squats, box jumps, and burpees, for example, in fast-as-you-can, high-intensity intervals is an effective way to combine cardio and strength.
As for ab-specific moves, like crunches and planks, you should do them as part of your total-body routine, says Dobrosielski, but don't expect them to make much of a dent in your gut all by themselves. "They'll build muscular endurance and increase lean muscle mass of that particular muscle, but if you've got five or 15 extra pounds of fat tissue over top of that muscle, it's not going to show."
And that brings us to the third important piece of any weight-loss plan: a healthy eating plan. In order to lose fat around your belly, or anywhere else for that matter, you've got to take in fewer calories than you're burning off. Now that the holiday cookies are all gone, hopefully that won't be too much of a problem.
Bottom line: To lose a Santa belly fast, aim for two to three days a week of moderate cardio and three to four days a week of total-body strength training.