Dr.Perricone's Pick: Health and Weight Management
Dr. Perricone Discusses

The Cause of Belly Fat


One of the seemingly unavoidable pitfalls of aging is unwanted weight gain. This is not simply because of the aesthetics of being overweight—it is because excess fat is highly toxic to the body and therefore highly aging as well.

Traditionally, women tend to gain weight in their hips and men in their abdomen. However, as they get older, women are particularly subject to weight gain in the abdominal area. And it becomes more and more difficult to lose this weight with each passing year. But there is good news on the horizon.

The Toxic Fat
As we know, there are two types of fat: sub-cutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (found in the abdomen and surrounding our vital organs). Visceral fat, or belly fat, is considered the most dangerous type of fat because it surrounds vital organs and is metabolized by the liver, which turns it into blood cholesterol. This type of visceral fat also puts pressure on the heart and the arteries, increasing the chances of heart trouble. In fact, we refer to this type of fat as 'toxic fat' because it produces a veritable factory of inflammatory chemicals, increasing our risk for heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

Cortisol and Stress
Much of the blame for this visceral fat can be attributed to chronic stress and the effects of stress-induced cortisol production. To make it even worse, cortisol levels can actually influence where fat is deposited on the body. A 2001 study from the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine linked the release of cortisol during times of acute and chronic stress in non-overweight women to excess cortisol levels and abdominal weight gain. Interestingly, the cause-and-effect process flows both ways: it has been proven that women (and men) who store their weight in the abdominal area also have higher cortisol levels - and higher stress levels - than people whose weight is stored on the hips.

Weights to the Rescue
According to a University of Pennsylvania study, weight training is especially effective in helping to eliminate central obesity. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study found that just two one-hour sessions of weight lifting per week can bring down the chances of age-related fat buildup in the abdomen.

I have long been a fan of weight lifting and resistance training in conjunction with some form of aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, and biking. Unfortunately many women shy away from working with weights, fearing that they will "bulk up" like their male counterparts. This is not the case. The average woman has approximately ten times less of the muscle-building hormone testosterone than the average male. In addition, female muscle produces less tension per unit volume, and each muscle fiber has a smaller cross-sectional area. What women need to know is that these factors make it harder for them to bulk up and that weight lifting will give a woman's body an attractive, sculpted appearance and significantly increase her strength and muscle tone.

Weight-training exercises will also slow age-related functional degeneration—again bearing out the outstanding anti-aging benefits of exercise. Three forty-five minute weight training workouts per week (Mon-Wed-Fri) is considered ideal. For optimum benefit, rotate weight training with other forms of exercise. It may take as long as six weeks to begin to see noticeable physical changes but don't despair. Stay with it because the beneficial and highly visible changes are well worth the effort.

But remember the other side of the coin—over exercising is pro-inflammatory. Over exercising can trigger the release of cortisol, promoting the unwanted weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, break down muscle tissue, and accelerate the rate at which we age. Before starting a weight training program, consult with your physician and/or a professional trainer to make sure you are training at the right level, to avoid injury and to ensure that you are performing the exercises correctly.

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