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POTBELLY: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

There are five simple explanations for why you might be packing a paunch.

Fortunately, there are also some simple ways to get rid of it - for good.

If you are carrying a little extra heft in the midsection and your partner is getting on your case about it, we've got a suggestion - don't blame yourself. Just accept the fact that you're a man born in the wrong century.
 
You see, it used to be hip to be heavy. In times gone by a potbelly was considered a sign of wealth and success. Landed gentry in the Middle ages wore their bellies as a badge of honour. Captains of industry early this century revered their girth as a symbol of wealth and power. And let's not forget sporting hero's like the sumo wrestlers who are paragons of portliness.

But times change. Nowadays being lean is a status symbol and hang-over-the-belt bellies are no longer in fashion! Too bad for us because as men we're still as prone to an expanding midsection as ever before. While a potbelly is easy to get it can be as hard as hell to eliminate. 

The key to overcoming any obstacle is to learn more about it. And that's true for your gut as well. If you want to abridge your abdomen, you need the answers to a few questions. What exactly is a potbelly? How did I wind up with one? What exactly is in there anyway? Why are some bellies hard and some soft? How do I get rid of it? Each of these questions has more answers than you would expect. Some have to do with nutrition, while others are a matter of biomechanics. But understand them and you'll be well on your way to a 32 inch waist. With that in mind come with us on an amazing mission of discovery - a journey to the centre of your girth.

Reason 1: Fat. Ok that sounds obvious but what most men don't realise is that potbellies comprise two types of fat and all it takes is a poke in your paunch to tell which kind you have in surplus. Place your hand on your belly and press. Does it feel soft like a marshmallow? Or does it feel hard, like the belly of a pregnant woman? A soft potbelly is made largely of what is called subcutaneous fat, meaning fat that lies beneath the skin, just above the muscle tissue. That is why it is soft - your hand is pushing against a layer of fat. 

A hard potbelly has more of what is referred to as visceral fat, which is fat between your muscles and organs. These fat cells push outwards against the abdominal wall, says epidemiologist Dr. J. Anthony Spartaro. His point? The guy who pats his belly and says "its muscle", is right, but there is lots of fat underneath.
From the health standpoint there is a difference between the two types of fat as well. Hard bellies place you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and intestinal disorders. The reason is that the fat is deep inside, pushing against your internal organs and disrupting the normal working of your digestive and circulatory systems.
But hard bellies may also be easier to get rid of than soft ones, theorises Spataro, who is also an exercise physiologist. "It may explain why men can lose weight more easily than women. Women tend to store more fat subcutaneously; it is that type of fat that seems to be more difficult to lose".

A point to keep in mind. Any belly raises your cholesterol level and increases your chance of coronary-artery disease. Here is the reason why: your body burns fat continually (but not necessarily as much as you might like). Most fat is absorbed from its storage place directly into your bloodstream, which transports it to wherever it is needed for energy. 

Unfortunately, your liver sees this high concentration of fat passing through and responds by producing excess LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol that blocks up your arteries). Whether that doughnut you just ate winds up as a sub-cutaneous or visceral fat is mainly up to genetics, but for the most part, a poor diet will lead to excess fat of both kinds. 

There are several ways to stop fat collecting around your midriff - cut dietary fat, which the body stores around your middle, exercise aerobically to burn fat, and lift weights to increase your resting metabolism (the rate at which your body burns energy while you're watching TV). But there are some tips you might not have heard before:

Eat from the East: The Chinese don't get potbellies the way we do. The reason could be that their fat-storage patterns may be affected by their diet, says Dr. A. Scott Connelly, a metabolism researcher.

Edible compounds called phytoestrogens (found in plant foods such as soy products, bean sprouts, seeds and nuts) may help distribute fat evenly on the body instead of letting it lump in one place. Connelly says a native Chinese diet is about 50 per cent phytoestrogens and very low in fat.
 
Watch the Clock: Can you eat the same foods you do now and exercise the same as you do now, but lose the weight anyway: Yes reveals Connelly, if you simply start consuming 60 per cent of your daily kilojoules into the morning instead of the evening. "You can eat the same foods and the same number of kilojoules but if you just eat most of them early in the day, you can lose significant amounts of weight".
How? In healthy people it is normal for insulin levels to rise after eating, but Connelly thinks evolution might also play a role. He believes we have a built in timer from the stone age that triggers a large release of insulin into our systems in the evening. One of insulin's roles is to help convert excess blood sugar into stores of fat. "This was necessary to help early man through periods of starvation between meals. The problem is, the more you eat at night, the more food is available during the insulin surge and the more your body can convert into fat," Says Connelly.

Avoid Cigarettes: Most ex smokers will tell you they gained weight after they quit smoking. That's because nicotine speeds up metabolism, thereby burning more kilojoules. It also gives you something else to put in your mouth besides food. So why shouldn't we pick up a packet of puffers and smoke our paunches away?
The answer is that while smoking may keep your overall weight down, it makes it harder to shed ab flab. (Researchers don't know exactly why.) "In smokers, there is a preferred loss of fat in the extremities, says clinical pharmacologist Dr. Neil Benowitz, "but minimal loss of abdominal fat".

Reason 2: Weak muscles: You know how important it is to stretch muscles before and after exercise. But if you have got a potbelly it is partly because your abdomen is being continually stretched. Whether you sit or stand the visceral fat beneath your belly pushes out and weakens the abdominal muscles. These then lose their ability to hold your stomach in place. Over time they continue to stretch and your pot gradually spills even further forward. 

The same thing can occur if you eat a big dinner just before you sleep (another reason to make breakfast your primary meal). That is because food in your stomach is causing it to rise like dough beneath your belt, pressing against your abdominal muscles from the inside. That is ok when you are awake, you never relax these muscles entirely, but as you sleep your abdominal muscles relax and stretch under the pressure. Filling up before bedtime leaves your belly weaker than ever. Here is how to get those muscles back in shape.

Avoid big meals. Like all muscles, the ones in your stomach are extremely pliable. Unlike skin they can snap back into their original shape all by themselves, if you give them a chance. Eating earlier and eating more frequent, smaller meals will not only prevent your muscles from being stretched: it will actually make them stronger. 
Hold your stomach in: Not just when a gorgeous blond walks past. Make it a habit to pull your belly up and in. You will look better and also strengthen your muscles. With practice, holding your muscles in this way will become second nature and a lot easier.
Exercise your gut: The above two tips are painless ways of getting your muscles into shape, but if you are a person who wants immediate results you will have to include some abdominal exercises in your general work out.

For example:
Crunch and reach. Lie on your back with your legs bent at a 90 degree angle, feet flat on the floor. Reach out between your knees with both hands and slowly curl your torso forward, raising your head and shoulders off the floor. Remember to keep your neck straight throughout the movement. Reach as far forward as you can, hold for a second and slowly curl back to the starting position. Do 15 to 20 reps.
 
Seated leg tuck. Sit on a flat bench, hands behind you. Extend your legs and lean your torso back until your body forms a 45 degree angle. Keeping your legs together bend your knees as you slowly raise them to your chest. Now bring your torso forward until your upper thighs and chest touch. Hold for a second and then slowly return to your starting point. Do about 12 to 15 reps.

REASON 3: Poor posture: The muscles that run along the spine and support the upper body are known as the postural muscles. If the ones supporting your lower back weaken, you will slouch and develop "sway back" a sloping of the spine inwards that accentuates the size of your stomach. Because big biceps are more on a man's agenda than back muscles and he can't see them in the mirror, these muscles are often neglected. 

That is why strength training for your back is one of the best ways of shrinking a potbelly. "Exercise that work the back particularly the lower back are your best bet. Outside the gym concentrating on walking, standing and sitting straight will develop them as well.

Strenghten your back: For strength and posture try this combination of exercises:
Arch: Lie on you stomach with a thin pillow under your abdomen and your arms at your sides. Slowly raise your upper torso and arch your back. Hold for four seconds, relax and repeat four times. Slowly increase your reps by five eventually doing up to 40.

Upright row: Grasp the middle of a barbell with your hands about 10 centimeters apart, palms down, and elbows out. Standing with your back straight, raise the bar to ears. Pause for a second then slowly lower the weight. Do 12 to 15 reps.

Posture pull: Stand with your back against the wall, heels 15cm apart and 7cm from the wall. Place your arms at your sides, palms forward keeping your lower back close to the wall straighten your upper back lifting your chest and bringing your shoulders back against the wall. Now tuck in your chin and bring your head back to touch the wall. Next pull up and in with your stomach muscles as if you were trying to flatten your belly. Hold for 10 seconds, relax and repeat four times. Try this exercise three times a day to work all the postural muscles and keep you standing tall.
 
REASON 4: Tight Hamstrings: How could the muscles along the back of your thighs have anything to do with your potbelly: It seems that tight hamstrings contribute in an indirect way "As they tighten it becomes harder for them to help support the body and keep it upright" says Spataro. The lower back has to take up the slack and works overtime to keep you standing straight and tall. More work means more pressure, tiring the lower back faster than it normally would.

The hamstrings get tight for two reasons: exercising and not exercising. No this isn't the ultimate catch 22. If you have desk job, your hamstrings get tight. The sitting position with legs bent, shortens the hamstrings and that makes them tighten. If you try to make up for all that office time by running or walking you compound the problem. That's because these activities mainly work the muscles along the back of your body, primarily your hamstrings. That tightens them as well. But don't quit your job just yet - or your work-out for that matter. Running and walking burn fat and that's your top priority. Rather, make it a rule to do a hamstring stretch three to four times a week. There are a variety of ways: here is the simple one. Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Keep your back straight, slowly bend at the waist and reach forward to touch your toes. You'll feel a comfortable pull on the backs of your legs. Hold for a few seconds and return. Repeat three times. 

Reason 5: Gravity: it's the ultimate excuse for a big belly - you are a victim of evolution. Try this. Get on all fours. You would expect your stomach to hang down and look bigger. But it actually looks smaller. The reason for this is that in this position gravity pulls down on your belly evenly, spreading it across your midsection. Too bad you cannot go to work that way. But the truth is our bodies were never originally structured to walk on two legs says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, an anatomy professor and author of 'How and Why we Age'. "As we age the spine compresses and essentially becomes smaller" says Hayflick "but all the tissues and the fat around it stay the same". The result is like a size 48 jacket on a size 40 chest - too much material and not enough frame. That loose skin, muscle tissue and fat has to go somewhere, so it heads for your waist. Another way the spine becomes squashed is through overhead weightlifting. This compresses the spine slightly, putting pressure on the disks between the vertebrae. Whether or not this is preventable is hard to say, but we can offer one solution.

Hang and Stretch: while there is some doubt over this method of decompressing the spine many believe it does some good, especially if you lift weights. Between sets of overhead presses, simply hang from a chin-up bar for 30 seconds. Even if you don't push weights overhead this move can help reduce pressure on your discs and prevent degeneration of the spine.

So the next time your partner gets on your back about that belly, blame it on evolution, on her great cooking, even on that job you work so hard at that leaves you no time to exercise. The point is your protruding midsection is really not your fault. Honest, we swear.  


Pat Henry