Is It Time To Embrace That Belly Fat?

Heart health

heartandberryBy Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


It is not news that two things you can do to help prevent cardiovascular disease are having a healthy body fat percentage and getting enough exercise. The other element of the healthy heart equation is, of course, following a nutritionally balanced diet.   

What is news – and exciting for anyone concerned about heart health – are two recent  studies that may get millions of people who have been discouraged from losing weight or exercising to give them both another try.

The First Good News: Any Weight Loss is Good Weight Loss!

Carrying excess weight - especially excess body fat – can trigger a variety of conditions which may increase your risk of developing heart disease or make it worse if you already have  it. These conditions include hypertension, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, high triglycerides, low levels of “good” cholesterol and increased blood sugar levels.

There has been general agreement in the medical community that the location of body fat  may impact your risk for cardiovascular disease. For example, belly fat reportedly carries a greater risk for cardiovascular disease and premature death than body fat located, for example, in your arms or legs. And this correlation between fat location and cardiovascular risk is still treated as a given by the healthcare community.

During the past eight years, doctors have cited research  showing that other distributions of body fat – especially those around the thighs, hips and backside – could actually reduce the risk of heart disease.  As a result, many people focused their efforts – and sweat – on trying to spot reduce belly fat, which is notoriously stubborn to lose. If their efforts failed, their attempts to reduce their body fat often failed with them.

Given this long standing position on “protective fat,” it is totally understandable that people were  concerned if their diets caused them to lose some of this “good” fat rather than their “bad” belly fat. The biggest concern these dieters had was whether or not losing this “good” fat would improve their cardiovascular health or inadvertently increase their risk of heart disease.  

But more recently, researchers tracked dieters and measured  important risk factors, such as glucose, insulin, cholesterol and blood pressure, of those who lost the “protective fat” during their dieting to see what impact, if any, it had on heart health risk factors.  

The results?  

Losing fat - and even some muscle – in the thighs, hips and buttocks was associated with beneficial changes in heart disease risk markers.  In other words,, it means that any weight loss – whether from your backside, belly or legs – may reduce your cardiovascular risk factors. And for lowering your cholesterol, losing fat in your legs may just be  as important as losing it around your belly.

If this isn’t good enough news for people trying to lose weight, the study also suggested that losing some lean tissue in the thighs, hips and backside may not present any health risks.

All this new information is important because rather than trying to lose weight and maintain muscle mass at the same time, you can focus on getting rid of some of your excess weight and body fat first and then work on increasing muscle mass.

There is, however, one caveat. While it’s now becoming clear that any weight loss is good, a couple of pounds really won’t do the trick when it comes to heart health – especially if you are seriously overweight or obese. To really enjoy the cardiovascular benefits of weight loss, you need to lose at least five to 10 percent of your total body weight to have a positive impact on blood pressure, glucose tolerance and cholesterol.   

Another thing to keep in mind as you continue, or perhaps restart, your program to reduce your body fat is that  your body fat percentage is a better predictor of your overall cardiovascular risk than other metrics such as your body weight or your body mass index (BMI). Knowing your percentage is especially important since you could be what is considered a normal weight but  still have dangerous levels of body fat (check out our prior blog about being “overfat”).

There is also evidence that the density of your fat is important as well, with lower density fat being associated with worse heart disease risk factors. Your doctor or healthcare provider can do tests to determine both your percentage of body fat and its density.

Even More Good News: Any Exercise is Good Exercise!

Just like we all know that being overweight is not good for our hearts, we also know that exercise is good for it. The benefits of exercise for our cardiovascular system are many, and they include lowering blood pressure, decreasing our heart rates, strengthening the heart muscle itself, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome and lowering blood sugar levels. So, why do more than half of adults over 18 not get the recommended amount of aerobic exercise a week with even fewer doing equally important strength training? We all have our favorite reasons, but the most common usually are “I don’t have the time” and “I am not in good enough shape.” Another is “it won’t do me any good since heart disease runs in my family.”

New research debunks these three beliefs and turns them on their heads. The first takeaway from the study is that even if you have a genetic risk for heart disease, exercise clearly lowers your risk of developing it compared to the risk of not exercising.   

How much does it reduce the risk?  

For both men and women, a high fitness level was linked to a 49 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease and a 60 percent lower risk for atrial fibrillation, which can increase the risk of stroke and heart failure. Additional recent research is confirming that people who may already have heart disease tend to live longer when they exercise.

But the good news is that you don’t need to become a marathon runner, champion weight-lifter or Olympic contender to enjoy the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. The American Heart Association suggests getting at least 150 minutes per week (about 20 minutes a day) of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both to help protect your heart. This is not very time consuming, and the great news is that you get benefits if you break your exercise down into two or three chunks of 15 – 20 minutes each per day.

So if you’re still thinking you need to summit a mountain for the above recommendations, physical activity is defined as anything that makes you move your body and burn some calories. This includes climbing stairs, walking, or riding a bike. The beauty of exercise is that you can pick something you enjoy doing.

And, of course, with exercise comes the necessity of fueling your body with all the essential vitamins and minerals. (To learn how to fuel your body for physical fitness, read here. And to learn about specific nutrients that may help with weight loss, read here.)

So, given that any weight loss and any physical activity can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, what are you waiting for?

Be proactive and get moving!


Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.