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How to whittle your middle

Dozens of readers, newly resolved to make this the year they finally get in shape, have written in about their weight-loss struggles, particularly the difficulty in losing that “spare tire.”
Losing weight around the abdomen can be difficult, but it's not impossible with exercise and determination.
Losing weight around the abdomen can be difficult, but it's not impossible with exercise and determination.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Dozens of readers, newly resolved to make this the year they finally get in shape, have written in about their weight-loss struggles, particularly the difficulty in losing that “spare tire.” So we consulted the experts for some tummy-trimming advice. Also in this column, answers on exercise and the common cold. Have a question about fitness or workouts? Send it to smartfitness@msnbc.com.

Q: I try to watch what I eat and get regular exercise but I still have more around my middle than I’d like. How can I lose this belly fat and burn these love handles?

A: Difficulty whittling one’s middle is a common complaint, fitness experts say, because the abdomen is one of the key areas where our bodies store fat.

This is especially true for men because the belly is their main fat storage space. For women, fat is first deposited in the hips and thighs, but the waist is also a prime target, particularly after menopause.

For either sex, one thing is clear: Excess abdominal fat isn’t just a cosmetic issue; it’s also linked to a greater risk of heart disease, some cancers and early death.

Yet, our bodies are programmed to pack on the pounds for hard times. Any unused calories are squirreled away as fat, which can quickly be converted to energy should food become scarce.

Of course, most Americans are in no danger of starving. But our bodies don’t know that. So when we take in more energy than we use, our bodies stockpile it.

To lose fat — wherever it’s located — you must prompt the body to tap into that stored fuel source. How? Not by starving yourself, of course, but by reducing your caloric intake with a healthful diet and burning calories with exercise.

“It’s a matter of calories in versus calories out,” explains Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.

If you’re already trying to follow a healthy lifestyle, as the reader indicates, take a closer look at your diet and exercise routine. Do you really know how many calories are in that super-sized bran muffin? Or how much fat is lurking in that mocha cappuccino? Is exercise truly a regular part of your life or something you squeeze in on the weekends?

Ratchet up your exercise regimen
To burn more calories, you may need to ratchet up your exercise regimen. The body can reach a fitness “plateau” where it becomes accustomed to a certain amount or type of activity. So you may want to consider exercising more often and trying new activities, like mountain biking, hiking, martial arts or cross-country skiing. Pick something you enjoy to increase the odds that you’ll stick with it. Better yet, incorporate several activities into your lifestyle to challenge your body in different ways.

But don’t expect that spare tire or those love handles to disappear overnight. In fact, the abdomen may be the last area you shed those unwanted pounds.

“You lose fat in the reverse order you put it on,” says Westcott. So you may notice the weight loss first in, say, the face or arms.

“Fat is kinda fickle and it’s very genetic,” he says.

Which brings us to the question of whether we can all achieve that washboard stomach that underwear models flaunt, also known as “six-pack” abs.

“Very few people on the planet will ever have a six-pack,” says Westcott. “I’ve tried for years. We just don’t have the genetics. Most of us are still going to have a little fat in the midsection.”

But you can engage in abdominal exercises to strengthen and firm the abdominal muscles, thus making the stomach seem less prominent. In doing so, you’ll also improve your posture and help prevent back injuries.

Keep in mind that it’s the combination of abdominal strengthening and weight loss that leads to a lean, taut trunk.

“You can do sit-ups till you’re blue in the face, but your abs aren’t going to show if that fat layer is still there,” says Larry Krug, a personal trainer at the Crunch gym in Los Angeles.

Both aerobic exercise and strength training can help you burn fat. The latter actually helps boost your metabolism because muscle burns more calories — even at rest — than fat.

Still, Krug says, plenty of people would have to go to extreme lengths for picture-perfect abs, exercising intensely and watching every last bite.

“It’s a lot harder for some people than others,” he says. “When you’re not happy, it’s not worth it.”

So if you’re at a healthy weight, get regular exercise and follow a good diet, experts say, stop pinching that last stubborn little inch and pat yourself on the back.

Q: Can exercise help you get rid of a cold?

A: “Exercise will neither increase nor decrease the severity or duration of a cold,” says Thomas Weidner, director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Weidner led a study in which 50 volunteers were injected with a cold virus. Those who ran, biked or worked out on a stair climber for 40 minutes each day while sick were no better or worse off than those who did not, results showed.

So if you want to work out with a cold, it’s generally OK to do so in moderation, experts say.

“The kind of cold we are speaking of, though, is a common head cold,” characterized by above-the-neck symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing or sore throat, Weidner says.

People who exercise with a cold should take it easy though.

“Start at 50 percent intensity for a few minutes,” Weidner advises. If you feel alright, then keep going, he says, just be sure to drink plenty of water.

However, people with symptoms such as chest congestion, muscle aches, fever and extreme fatigue are advised to rest.

While exercise may not cure a cold, there is research to suggest that people who are in shape are less likely to catch one in the first place. Very intense activity like marathon training can weaken one’s immunity, but moderate physical activity may actually help boost it — offering yet another incentive to get off the couch.