Feeling self-conscious about the size of your stomach, you've been tempted to look into one of the countless products out there touting washboard abs in 30 seconds or less.
But instead of buying into a quick fix this year, why not follow some of the experts' advice for kicking that spare tire for good?
Infomercials may tell you otherwise, but most research has shown it isn't possible to spot reduce. Exercises like crunches may tone your abdominal muscles but that doesn't mean you're necessarily losing a lot of fat there, says Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Michigan and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
"Any exercise above and beyond doing none will help you burn fat and lose weight," she says, "but not from that one spot — from all over."
The good news
Fear not. You're probably already doing the kinds of exercises that will lead to great abs — just maybe not the right amounts.
If you've got some weight to lose, say 10 pounds or more, your primary focus should be aerobic exercise, such as running, biking and swimming, which will help lower your total body fat.
To get the best results, aim for 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five days a week. Twice a week incorporate anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting, using eight to 10 different exercises targeting large muscles, Millar says.
Overall, your workout should be 75 percent aerobic and 25 percent anaerobic, suggests Edward Jackowski, CEO and founder of the motivational fitness company Exude.
"If you're a guy with a 38 waist and your stomach is hanging over your belt, you're not going to firm that," he says. "You need to lose weight at the same time."
Center of attention
Once you're ready to focus on ab exercises, you've got a wide range of choices. Most moves tend to do the same thing using different positions, Millar says, but if you're confused about which is best a trainer may be able to help.
Jackowski recommends crunches and reverse crunches; the latter involves pulling your knees toward your chest.
A recent study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise says the best at-home abdominal exercises in terms of getting definite results are the bicycle maneuver, where you perform a crunch by touching your knees to your opposite elbows, and the exercise-ball crunch, in which you lie back on the ball, thighs and torso parallel with the floor, and raise your torso no more than 45 degrees as you exhale. The council's Web site contains instructions on how to correctly perform a number of abdominal exercises.
Whatever exercises you choose, the American College of Sports Medicine says you should start out doing eight to 12 repetitions each for one to three sets; or generally for those 50 and older, 10 to 15 reps at a lower resistance. Concentrate on your form to prevent back injuries, rather than speeding through them. And don't do them every day.
"Abs need time to recover," says Billy Blanks, creator of a new Tae Bo workout called AMPED, which focuses on strengthening the core and burning fat with the help of an exercise bar. "If you keep going, you'll keep breaking them down."
When it comes to your diet, don't skip meals. It may make your stomach feel and look flat, but it will probably make you feel lousy and lead to your sitting on the couch in front of the TV instead of spending time on the elliptical machine.
Millar recommends following the USDA's dietary guidelines, which advocate a balanced diet and, for weight loss, reducing your daily caloric intake. Along those lines, Jackowski suggests limiting your starches at night, when you need less fuel, while Blanks says he cuts back on sugar and soda.
While there are lots of different diets to chose from today, from low carb to low fat, in the end which one you choose may be less important than whether you stick with it, says Kerry Stewart, professor of medicine and director of clinical research exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
If having others see you in a bathing suit this summer isn't motivation enough, you should also consider the impact trimming your trunk can have on your health.
A growing body of research shows that larger waist sizes are associated with inflammation, and with that an increased risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, says Dr. Luigi Fontana, assistant professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That's likely due to the presence of visceral fat, the fat that surrounds organs in the gut and can't easily be surgically removed.
In other words, liposuction won't cut it.
As we age, our visceral fat tends to increase. Men start off with more visceral fat, but for women between the ages of 25 and 65 this type of fat triples, says Gary Hunter, professor in the department of human studies and nutrition science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To avoid the age-related shift, prevent weight gain and maintain lean tissue, the answer is resistance and aerobic training.
By maintaining a higher level of fitness, you're also more likely to be active, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a little farther away from the front door of the mall, continuing the cycle.
"The magic bullet really is exercise," Hunter says.