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Is It Normal... to Exercise Like Crazy and Still Have a Belly?

You practice yoga. You sweat through HIIT class. You even wear through your running shoes a few times a year thanks to thrice-weekly 5-mile runs. But somehow, some way you still have a stubborn little belly bulge. Is this normal?

According to Los Angeles-based nutrition expert Whitney English, MS, RDN, CPT, even if you log several hours exercising each week, you most certainly can have a little belly due to other neglected aspects of your lifestyle. “Exercise is important for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, but it isn’t the only factor in weight loss,” she explains.

Why is a belly pooch normal if I exercise?

First up: The passing of time isn’t on your side when it comes to decreasing gut girth. Menopause — specifically the decrease in estrogen levels — causes fat storage to shift from the hips and thighs to the stomach, according to a review by the Mayo Clinic. Though menopause doesn’t cause weight gain, this redistribution of fat around the midsection certainly can account for a stubborn tummy.

Additionally, “what we eat, how much we sleep, and our stress levels are all important factors when it comes to weight and body fat,” English says — particularly when it comes to women’s abdomens. Not surprisingly, if you don’t eat healthy, you aren’t doing yourself any favors: Because our metabolic rate slows with age, the calories you consume are harder to burn. English adds, “It’s specifically harder to lose body fat, as body fat increases while muscle mass naturally decreases with age.”

As for stress and a lack of zzz’s, English has news for you: “Both raise cortisol levels, which can cause the body to increase fat storage.”

Reason follows that eating healthy, decreasing stress, and getting more shut-eye are all lifestyle adjustments that should help with a teeny pot belly, but if you think adding 100 crunches a day will get you to your goal faster, English is quick to note that no matter what popular fitness magazines may say, you can’t “spot reduce” body fat. “When you see articles stating, ‘Lose Those Love Handles,’ you should immediately flip the page!” she says.

Instead, switch up your regular exercise routine (she suggests aiming for 30 minutes of purposeful movement at minimum per day) with a mix of exercises that increase your heart rate — like jogging, fast walking, or circuit training — and exercises that build muscle, like Pilates, weightlifting, and body-weight exercises, English says.

As for gut-busting eats, steer clear of inflammation-causing processed foods and focus on incorporating whole foods into your diet, including whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. “These nutrient- and fiber-rich foods will not only improve your health, but also provide satiety from your meals, which will prevent overeating and increase satisfaction,” English says.

When is a belly on an active person not normal?

If your lifestyle already consists of a healthy mix of food, exercise, sleep, and mental well-being, you likely shouldn’t be carrying a belly. There are cases where persistent bloat, stomach pain, or sudden weight gain signal more serious conditions. If you notice any of these, English suggests visiting a physician right away.

Photo: Kittisak Jirasittichai

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