No matter what you weigh tightening your middle could mean a healthier you.

You may not be overweight, but you still have a “muffin top” that’s driving you crazy. If you find yourself with extra weight around the middle, there’s more to think about than the way your jeans fit. Recent studies show that where you store body fat can play a role in your health, and belly fat carries the highest risk. Women with love handles are more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, and a study by Harvard researchers shows that these women are even more likely to die early from heart disease and cancer — even if their weights are normal. 

Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to stay out of the danger zone. Follow these eight simple strategies to blast fat, tighten your midsection and be your healthiest at any weight.

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Can’t seem to get yourself to the gym? These five tips can help you keep your weight-loss goals on track.

Can’t seem to get yourself to the gym? Tap into the motivational power of social support. In a study from Stanford University, over 200 people were given health-education lessons during which they set a weekly walking goal. From there, they were split into three groups: One that received encouraging phone calls from a live person, another that received the same number of phone calls from an automated computer system and the last that received no follow-up.

The phone calls paid off: A year later, the group that received live calls increased their weekly walking time on average by 78 percent, or an additional hour and 18 minutes! Whether you like to work out alone, with a buddy or in a large group, keep yourself in check with the following tips:

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Body fat: Everyone has it, and everyone wants less of it. But how can you make that happen and still be healthy and perform well? The answer may surprise you.

If you’re like many active women, your range of body-fat levels likely hovers between 14 and 24 percent. So what is the difference between Jane and Joanne Doe, wherein Jane has 15 percent body fat and Joanne has 22? 

The assumption naturally is dietary differences: Maybe Jane eats super clean 24/7, while Joanne enjoys a glass of wine and dessert several times per week. But really, nutrition is only part of the equation; anyone can diet down to a low body fat with a little determination (and a lot of willpower). But maintaining a lean physique over the long term can be achieved with something you’re probably already doing: strength training.

It’s Your Choice!

You know having more muscle mass boosts metabolism, since you need to burn calories in order to maintain and support those cells. But instead of thinking inside the usual gym box, look at strength training from a different angle, one in which body composition is determined by the kind of strength work you do. Because in fact, tailoring your program to focus on performance, power and synergistic compound strength could be the key to shedding those last few percentage points.

Bodypart training is effective if you’re trying to bring up stubborn parts or balance certain muscle groups, but it’s not very metabolically taxing to work one muscle group at a time. These four training edicts could be the key to unlocking your own potential to sculpt a strong, capable body.

1. Believe In Bodyweight

Capably being able to move your own bodyweight not only makes you a better athlete but also makes you leaner. Bodyweight moves incorporate multiple muscle groups while also training your balance, agility and reaction time. The more muscles you work, the more calories you burn. The faster you get, the more calories you burn. The more agile and quick you are, the more calories you burn. (See the pattern here?) Bodyweight exercises are also unique in that they can be done for very low or very high numbers of reps and can create a strength, hypertrophy or metabolic fat-loss effect, depending on the rep range.

Take action: Put bodyweight moves at the beginning of a strength workout to warm up muscles and train movement patterns. Add them at the end of a strength workout as a burnout, doing high reps for volume to encourage hypertrophy.

2. Power Up

Compound and powerlifting moves are some of the most effective around when it comes to building strength. Why is strength important for fat loss? According to research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the stronger you are, the greater your exercise intensity and the higher your energy consumption both in the gym and out. And the more mass you have, the more calories you burn and the more fat you’ll lose as a result; powerlifting and compound moves by their very nature build muscle.

Take action: If you’re not familiar with big lifting movements, get a certified professional to show you the ropes. There are definite and specific techniques that should be applied to keep your body safe and make the gains and progress that you’re angling for. Once you’re familiar with the lifts, blend them into your program so they land in the first couple of slots in your workout when you’re freshest and have the most energy. Build in weight slowly over the course of several months to keep your joints and connective tissues safe.

3. Jump To It

Incorporating explosive athletic movements such as jumps, throws and Olympic lifts (snatch, clean-and-jerk) into your program targets fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are the largest and strongest muscle fibers in the body, metabolizing the most energy and improving insulin sensitivity and your ability to burn stored body fat, according to research in the ACSM Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.

“Explosive training also causes a release of adrenaline, which hormonally triggers thermogenesis,” says Jennifer Petrosino, CSCS, and a professional powerlifter. “The result is a triple whammy of increased muscle and strength, with a decrease in body fat.”

Take action: Dedicate one to two workouts per week to explosive training such as plyometrics or Olympic lifting. Because it is so taxing, leave at least two days in between these kinds of workouts to allow for full recovery. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with this kind of lifting, have a professional show you proper technique to stay safe.

4. Seek Out Speed

Have you ever seen a chunky sprinter? Didn’t think so. Recent research demonstrated that sprint training performed three times weekly can reduce body fat by as much as 8 percent, as well as decreasing waist circumference and increasing muscle mass, according to a report in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. Athletes who train for speed work at such a high intensity are constantly in a state of EPOC — excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Their bodies are constantly mobilizing body fat and carbs for fuel, boosting thermogenesis for many hours post-training.

Take action: You don’t need to be Lolo Jones in order to benefit from a sprinting protocol. Find a local track and try this progressive workout, designed by Martin Rooney, DPT, CSCS, which increases in distance over the course of eight weeks. After a thorough warm-up that includes jogging, running and five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching and mobility work, do this workout up to twice a week, leaving at least two days of rest between workouts. For each sprint, push yourself hard, then take enough time so you fully recover. Then it’s time for the next sprint.

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Fire up the grill and follow these guidelines for cooking salmon.

Salmon consumption helps improve physique gains and improve heart health.

Why hover over the stove when grilling offers the perfect opportunity to play with fire. Take your cooking outdoors to fire up a bounty of proteins that have sizzling flavor and the nutritive chops needed to keep you lean. And what’s better suited to the grill than fish fillets, especially salmon? Salmon’s natural fat content helps prevent it from drying out in the high heat of a grill. The firm texture of salmon fillets prevents them from falling apart as they cook. As a nutritional bonus, salmon provides a boatload of the ultra-healthy omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids, shown to help improve physique gains and shore up heart health.

Reel It In!

Fish is the perfect diet food because it’s high in protein and because it provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as disease-fighting vitamin D and selenium, and salmon is among the fish and seafood that’s lowest in mercury (others include pollock, tilapia and shrimp).

Here are a few helpful tips for great grilling:

  • In choosing fish, opt for fillets with the skin still intact to make life easier — you won’t have to flip them on the grill. Skin also equals more flavor.
  • Rinse the salmon fillets under cold water, then pat dry. Coat all sides with a bit of olive or canola oil before cooking to prevent sticking. Add a rub (a mixture of seasonings) or see the toppers listed here.
  • To prep a gas grill, preheat for 15 minutes at the specified heat level with the lid closed. The salmon is less likely to stick to a very hot grate.
  • If using an old-school grill powered by coals, wait until the coals are completely covered with gray ash, then hold your hand about five inches above the grill grate. Count how many seconds you can comfortably leave it there: One to two seconds is high heat, three to four seconds is medium heat and five to six seconds is low heat.
  • The best time to scrub the grate free of any crusty gunk is after preheating. Use a long-handled brush. A clean grate is one of the best lines of defense against food sticking. If you use a bristle brush, inspect the grating — you don’t want any bristles or wires getting into your food.
  • When the grill is preheated to medium-high, cook the fish on high heat for five to 10 minutes for a ½- to 1-inch fillet. Allow caramelization to develop between the fish and the grate for easy removal.
  • Season the salmon with salt and pepper and lightly oil the skin sides. Cook the fillets skin side down with the barbecue grill lid closed, just until almost opaque throughout and skin is crackling crisp, about 10 to 12 minutes total.
  • Grill the first side longer to develop a crust and those eye-pleasing grill marks on top. Add a pinch of dill and sea salt.
  • If the skin starts to burn before the flesh is finished cooking, slide the fish onto aluminum foil and finish cooking. Four skin-on fillets of about six ounces will serve four people.
  • One common mistake is flipping too often. Keep the lid down and turn the fish only once to a clean area of the grill.

Spice Is Nice

It may be hard to make unhealthy food on a grill, but it’s frighteningly easy to make bland barbecue. To avoid that ugly fate, we provide a few toppers for your salmon. Our only other tip: For faster fat loss, go easy with coatings and condiments.

Ancho Honey Glaze

Place two dried ancho chili peppers in a bowl and pour hot water over them — enough to cover them. Let soak for 15 minutes or until soft. Slice off the stems and pour out most of the seeds. Place the chilies, ⅓ cup water, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 teaspoon orange zest and juice of ½ orange in a blender container and process until smooth. Remove half the glaze and set aside. Brush salmon fillets with glaze when there’s about five minutes left in cooking time. Remove salmon from grill and brush with reserved glaze.

Pineapple Salsa

Pat six pineapple rings dry with a paper towel and brush both sides with a light coating of oil. Grill pineapple rings for two minutes per side or until they have developed grill marks. Let cool, chop and combine with one diced avocado, one diced red bell pepper, ½ cup finely diced red onion, one seeded and minced serrano chili pepper, ⅓ cup chopped cilantro, juice of ½ lemon and ¼ teaspoon salt. Serve over salmon fillets.

Basil Oil

Place one packed cup fresh basil, ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons water and ¼ teaspoon salt to taste in a blender container and blend until smooth. Pour into a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl and press down with a spatula to extract as much oil as possible. Discard solids. Serve salmon with oil drizzled over top.

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Want to try intermittent fasting? Here are a few things to note before diving in.

The fitness crowd tends to throw shade at the idea of skipping meals and snacks to slim down, believing this will eat away at your hard-earned muscle, grind your metabolism to a halt and spur diet-derailing hunger pangs. These days, however, the idea of occasionally shuttering your kitchen is the guiding principle of an increasingly popular — and increasingly researched — dieting approach with a lot of weight-loss buzz: intermittent fasting.

Believe it or not, fasting wasn’t invented by Instagram hashtags — in fact, people have been fasting for thousands of years: Our ancestors did it (usually because they didn’t have a constant supply of food stashed in the fridge), and a number of religious events such as Ramadan revolve around some form of dietary fast.

As the name implies, intermittent fasting (IF) is a system during which you alternate between periods of restricted calorie intake and periods of normal eating. To be clear, IF does not restrict the kinds of foods you can eat — as do diets like Paleo or keto — just how much you can eat on certain days of the week. Many swear by IF because it’s easy to implement, requires nothing draconian like a horrible juice cleanse, and it has been proved to be one of the speediest and sustainable ways to torch fat stores and promote a lean physique.

Research says fasting has been a favorite research topic as of late, and a number of studies have found intermittent energy restriction — in which people ate fewer than 800 calories at least once per week — to be a valid weight-loss strategy, at least in the short term. In one study, weight loss was similar among participants following either a heart-healthy diet or a high-protein, reduced-calorie IF regimen for three months. However, the IF diet won out for minimizing weight regain after one year. Another investigation showed that IF was just as good at stripping body fat as simple calorie cutting. However, IF did a better job at preserving lean body mass.

As to how exactly IF helps sculpt your physique, theories abound: Some propose that IF flips a metabolic switch that encourages your body to burn more fat. Others state that since IF restricts your window of eating, you’re likely to eat fewer calories during the course of a week, helping trim the waistline with less risk of losing muscle. Even more studies propose that IF might help people get in touch with their true feelings of satiety and fullness on food-restricted days, which can put the brakes on overeating during times of normal food intake.

On another front, IF may have other positive effects on your body, such as reducing memory loss, improving cholesterol and blood pressure, and helping prevent diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity. And contrary to logic, IF could actually help — not hurt — your physical performance at the gym: A 2018 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that athletes who participated in an every-other-day fasting protocol (eating 33 percent of their normal calorie intake on fasting days) for six weeks became more energy-efficient during exercise, reported less fatigue and experienced reduced body-fat levels. Researchers theorize that occasional energy restriction might spur changes in hormones and mitochondrial function, helping you get more out of your workouts.

Fit Girl Fasting

Want to give intermittent fasting a whirl? Try this 5:2 eating plan: You eat normally for five days and reduce your calorie intake to about 25 percent of normal for two days. Drink all the calorie-free liquids you want on both days to stay hydrated and healthy, and focus on whole, nutrient-rich foods for all seven days.

Feast Days

5 Days a Week

Breakfast
½ cup rolled oats (cooked) + 1/3 cup low-fat milk + 1 scoop protein powder (Top with 2 tbsp chopped nuts + ½ cup blueberries.)

Snack
2/3 cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ cup berries

Lunch
4 oz cooked salmon + 1 cup cooked quinoa + 2 cups mixed greens + drizzle of olive oil vinaigrette

Snack
1/3 cup hummus + ½ cup sliced red bell peppers

Post-Training Shake
1 cup milk + 1 scoop protein powder + ½ frozen chopped banana

Dinner
4 oz pan-seared boneless pork loin chop + 2 cups roasted baby potatoes + 1 cup steamed asparagus + 1 tsp olive oil

Nutrition Facts (per day): 1,953 calories, fat 93 g, protein 146 g, carbs 201 g

Fast Days

2 Days a Week

Midmorning Snack
½ cup cottage cheese + ½ cup chopped pineapple + 2 tbsp unsalted roasted sunflower seeds

Afternoon Snack
½ cup baby carrots + 1 string cheese + 1 oz almonds

Evening Snack
1 oz jerky

Nutrition Facts (per day): 586 calories, fat 36 g, protein 39 g, carbs 34 g

Fasting Cheat Sheet

Want to try intermittent fasting? Here are a few things to note before diving in.

High, low and start slow

There are different ways to put IF into practice, and since the jury is out as to which style yields the biggest benefits, choose the one that best fits your lifestyle.

The most common method of IF is 16:8. Here, you eat during an eight-hour window, say between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and fast the remaining 16 hours in that day. There is also the eat-stop-eat method during which you do a 24-hour fast twice a week and eat normally five days a week, and the 5:2 method during which you eat normally for five days, then reduce your food intake to about 25 percent of normal (which usually totals about 500 to 700 calories) on two nonconsecutive days per week.

If you’re new to IF and aren’t sure you can hang, ease into it so you have a better chance of sticking with it long term: A JAMA Internal Medicine study found that while people on an alternate-day fasting regimen (25 percent of energy needs on fasting days) experienced weight- loss benefits, about a third of the participants failed to make it to the end. To increase your chances of follow-through, consider the 12:12 method: Here, you fast for 12 hours per day and eat within a 12-hour window — which probably isn’t that far off from how you’re eating now. This method also could increase your chances for fat loss: A 2018 British investigation found that people who simply delayed their breakfast by 90 minutes and ate their dinner 90 minutes earlier than normal — with no imposed restrictions on what they could eat — lost twice as much body fat over a 10-week period than those who ate their meals at their normal times. Experts theorize this is owed to a decrease in both appetite and overall calorie intake.

Food for thought

If you choose a routine such as the 5:2 method during which on fasting days you simply eat less, don’t waste an entire day of calories on a couple of slices of gooey pizza. Make those calories count, and focus on nutrient-dense, satiating foods such as legumes, vegetables, fruits and fish — items that deliver plenty of nutrients relative to the number of calories they contain.

Also, beware of the feeding-day binge: Since IF doesn’t dictate the types of foods you should eat, you might be tempted to reward yourself with less-than-healthful foods during normal eating periods. But IF only works for fat loss if you focus on nutrition, not just calories, so on non-fasting days, fall back into a normal diet full of whole, clean foods, and stick to your regular eating schedule of several meals and snacks per day.

Drink up

Dehydration can exacerbate hunger and leave you in a candy-worshipping hangry rage. Keep plenty of calorie-free liquids like water and tea nearby when fasting to promote satiety and replace some of the liquid you’re missing by cutting out much of your food. Not sure you’re getting enough H2O? Keep track of your urine color: The darker the color, the more water you need. As for caffeine — don’t worry about it. Recent research proved that it does not dehydrate people as much as it was once thought, especially if you’re a regular coffee drinker.

Train to gain

The days you train and the days you feed or fast should align properly. If your goal is to nail a personal-record 1-mile run or improve on your strength with heavier lifts, train during non-fasting periods when you have more available energy. If your goal is fat loss, exercise on a fasting day to create a metabolic environment that favors fat burning as your carbohydrate stores become depleted. That being said, however, if you feel exhausted and lightheaded when exercising on a fasting day, either call it quits or eat some food. Your workout will be half-assed, and you’ll increase your risk of injury.

Pop a pill

On fasting days, consider taking a multivitamin to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy: A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also found that women following a weight-loss diet reported less hunger when supplementing with a multivitamin. Make sure your multi also includes the B vitamins that help turn food into energy and control appetite. To reduce muscle breakdown, think about branched-chain amino acids or including a protein powder supplement to your regimen, if it works into your fasted calorie allotment.

It may not work

Like many diets, the success of IF will vary from person to person. Some may rave about their success with fat loss and their clearer mind, while others may experience nothing but prolonged fatigue and irresistible cravings.

It often takes a couple of weeks for your body to adjust to IF, and side effects of fasting like raging hunger, brain fog, grumpiness or low energy will likely subside with time. If you’re still miserable after three weeks, IF is probably not right for you.

WARNING: Certain medical conditions can be worsened by fasting. Consult with your doctor if you’re diabetic, have low blood pressure, take medications, are underweight, are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant, or are breast-feeding before beginning any sort of intermittent fasting. 

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Scared you might fail? Read on for simple ways to keep a positive mindset during your weight-loss journey.

When you first made the decision to get leaner and healthier, you were probably excited, possibly even a little giddy. The idea that you don’t have to be satisfied with the proverbial hand you were dealt is certainly empowering, and that rush of motivation may have caused you to jump headfirst into an intense diet and exercise plan.

But as the weeks went on and your results started to lag, your enthusiasm for your plan and your confidence in your willpower likely dwindled, as well. Kick your doubts to the curb with these gentle reminders that your fat-loss journey is in the hands of one person: you!

  1. Remind yourself it’s not impossible. Losing weight may seem similar to climbing a mountain in the beginning, but keep in mind that many people have overcome obstacles similar to or larger than yours – and are happier for it. Check out our Success Stories and prepare to be inspired!
  2. Don’t walk into temptation. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but that’s because it rings true: “When you go to the supermarket, stay in the periphery and don’t go down the aisles,” advises Barry Sears, PhD, a prominent weight-loss author and expert in the science of anti-inflammatory nutrition. There’s one caveat, however: food manufacturers know that people head to the produce section and meat counter to find healthy food, so they often strategically place packaged foods they want you to believe are good for you near these areas. Don’t fall for their hype.
  3. Every little bit does help! “People hate too much change; it’s stressful,” says Sears. The number-one thing he recommends for those looking to lose weight is taking a high-quality fish oil supplement. Not only have omega-3 fatty acids been linked to increased weight loss, evidence suggests it may play a roll in reducing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and asthma.
  4. Go back to basics. You’ve probably seen the newly revamped United States Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, the replacement for the beloved (but carb-heavy) USDA’s food pyramid. While it’s a good reference, Sears points out, “The USDA has one political purpose: to support American agriculture.” He goes on to note that the best way to ensure you are getting a balanced diet is to not put anything on your plate that “did not exist 10,000 years ago.” That basically means lean meats, vegetables and fruits, healthy fats and scant grains (which, coincidentally enough, we did not start farming until – you guessed it – 10,000 years ago).

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Body composition is important not only for physical aesthetic but also for performance and longevity. Here’s what you need to know to swing the percentages in your favor.

FAT.

No group of women fears this word more than those in the fitness industry. Body fat is the target of nearly all workout programming, and all efforts are directed toward burning it, cutting it and losing it. Not that wanting to haul around less body fat is bad — quite the contrary: Obesity is the scourge of both the individual and society at large, and losing a ton of fat would literally do a world of good.

Yet for some, fat loss becomes a slippery slope, and often women push it a little too far when chasing that lean ideal. Because in the end, body fat is still a vital part of our physiology and too little can be just as dangerous as too much.

What the F…

First, let’s get this straight: Bodyweight and body composition are not the same thing. Your bodyweight is simply the number you see on the scale and is really only a measure of how hard gravity is pulling you toward the earth’s center. It measures the total weight of your body — muscle, bones, skin, organs, water weight, hair — even lunch — and what you weigh can fluctuate from day to day depending on what you ate, the time of the month (for women), how much sodium you’re ingesting and stress levels.

Knowing your weight is useful as a gauge of health in some ways, and several studies have shown that people who weigh themselves every day are more likely to stick to a health program than those who don’t because the scale keeps them accountable for their actions. However, it does not take into account the composition of your body — the ratio of fat to lean mass in your person — and is not really a good indicator of health.

Your body composition is the breakdown of what exactly you’re made of: muscles, bones, organs and of course fat. It is often described as the ratio of your fat mass vs. your fat-free mass. However, this is somewhat misleading: A certain percentage of your body fat is actually found within your organs, nervous system and hormones, as well as on the surface of every one of the 37 trillion cells in your body. This “essential fat” accounts for about 8 to 12 percent of total fat for women. The remainder of your fat mass is that bothersome layer we all want to shed — adipose tissue — which lies beneath your skin and is in essence a cache of fatty acids stored in cells as energy reserves and insulation.

Although it may be aesthetically displeasing, some adipose tissue is necessary for normal physiology and plays an important role in the production of sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. It also facilitates the transport and storage of fat-soluble vitamins and, strangely, plays a role in satiety: The brain takes note of how much fat is stored in adipose cells and can increase hunger signals or reduce your activity level when it feels stores are too low.

Because it’s essentially stored energy, adipose tissue has a very low metabolic cost — in other words, it requires very few calories to maintain. Lean mass is quite the opposite, requiring more calories just to exist, and gaining muscle weight is a good thing for fat loss in the long term because it will cause the body to burn more calories throughout the day. Gaining lean mass will also change your resting metabolic rate (RMR), the calories you burn at rest. Your RMR is highly influenced by body composition, which is why two people of the exact same height and weight can look very different physically and will require very different amounts of food to fuel their physique: The one with more lean mass requires more calories, even if they’re not active that day.

How Low Should You Go?

Women by nature have more essential body fat than men, and a healthy range of total body-fat percentage can swing anywhere from 18 to 30 percent for women. While we all want to see our abs, dropping below the norm can have some negative side effects, ranging from the innocuous — temperature sensitivity and decreased energy — to the more dangerous — loss of muscle mass, depression, reproductive and endocrine dysfunction, heart arrhythmia and kidney damage.

Athletes and fitness pros can often maintain a leaner physique based on their activity level and the amount of muscle they carry. For these women, a year-round 15 to 19 percent body-fat level is not uncommon and can still be healthy. However, the effort required to maintain this level demands more attention to exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management and mindset. Many athletes who compete in bikini, fitness and figure drop below that number to hit their peak for a competition, but most rebound back to normal once the show is over since it is unhealthy and difficult to maintain such low levels of body fat. This subnorm loss should be done slowly over the course of several months because fluctuating quickly in a larger range — alternating with drastic cuts and rapid gains — can wreak havoc on your endocrine, digestive and immune systems.

For non-stage athletes who want long-term results, slow, steady fat loss is always better because it gives your brain a chance to reset its conservation tactics and learn to accept a lower overall body-fat level. You’ll also want to maintain a body-fat level that allows you to excel at your sport, allowing you to get stronger and keep your hormones and other internal systems in top shape.

Where the F…

Where you store adipose tissue is equally as important as how much you have. Fat stored subcutaneously (beneath the skin) can be deposited anywhere on the body but may be genetically and hormonally influenced to settle in a particular location, like the hips, thighs or belly. And though you might hate your saddlebags, research has found that women who store fat around their butts, hips and thighs have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure than women who store fat in their abdomens and midsections.

Although genetics primarily control where you store your fat, you do have some control, and actually the type of exercise you do may influence how and where your body will store energy in the future.

For example, fat has been found stored in between muscle fibers in endurance athletes, making for easy energy access during long-distance events. External factors such as hormonal birth control methods also can alter where you store your fat because they trick your body into fake pregnancy every month, causing it to hang on to more fat — particularly around the hips. And bad news for masters athletes: Fat storage increases as you age, and the location shifts more to the midsection since fat storage is highly influenced by reproductive hormones, which wane during menopause.

Why the F…

No two bodies look or function exactly the same, even at similar body-fat levels. Some of us look, feel and function better with slightly higher or lower levels, and the healthy ranges prescribed leave a lot of room for individuality.

Numerous factors dictate your body-fat needs. If you’re trying to get pregnant, for example, you’ll need to carry a little more fat for proper hormone production. And while some athletes still have healthy cycles when relatively lean, others may lose their cycle completely if they drop below 18 to 20 percent. Athletes will also need to carry different amounts of fat depending on what their sport requires for fuel, momentum, comfort and mental focus. Even physique competitors rarely rely on body composition alone to prep for competition. The target “look” that is required for their performance has more to do with overall appearance than reaching an arbitrary number alone.

Unfortunately, when you do trim down, you won’t always lose body fat exactly where you want, nor is that loss evenly distributed across your body. Often, the place you want to lose it the most will be the last to leave, and if you’re wondering at what percent body fat your abs will magically appear — keep wondering: Some people can see visible abdominal definition at higher body-fat levels, while others can get dangerously lean and only see a ghost of a six-pack.

The Other F-Word

Fat composition is just one of many ways we attempt to measure the other, more important F-word — fitness. However, being fit is about way more than being lean: It includes strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, balance, flexibility and much, much more. If you’re an athlete, you’re better off training for the components of your sport that will improve your chances of success, and this often has little to do with how lean or shredded you are. The most important thing is to determine what body-fat level will best support your lifestyle and/or sport. Life is too short, too important and frankly too fun to stress over achieving someone else’s “ideal” number at the expense of your own well-being. Your fat should support your fit.

How the F…

If you want to know your body composition, whether you’re planning to compete or are just curious, there are several methods to consider. But no matter which you choose, none of them is 100 percent accurate (no matter what the salesperson tells you), and the readings can be off as much as 1 to 4 percent in either direction. In other words, if you measure 20 percent body fat in a test, you have just as much chance of being 16 percent as you do of being 24 percent.

Of all the tests, the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scan (DEXA) is considered the gold standard, providing you with an X-ray scan of your body showing where you store your body fat. This has a +1 to 2 percent margin of error, which is on the low end of the variability.

No matter which method you choose, you’re better off completely ignoring the resultant percentages since their accuracy is dubious. Instead, use those numbers as a baseline measurement to track change and ensure maintenance over time, making sure your fat mass is going down and/or your lean mass is going up.

When testing, use the same method, test at the same time of day under similar physical conditions, and use the same trainer or technician whenever possible. Also, minimize the room for error with the following steps:

  • Avoid alcohol and excess sodium at least 48 hours before the test.
  • Don’t consume diuretics (caffeine, tea or soft drinks) for 24 hours before the test.
  • Don’t exercise for 12 hours before the test.
  • Avoid eating large meals a few hours before the test.
  • Maintain normal hydration.
  • Empty your bladder at least 30 minutes before as well as right before the test.

Gut Check

Research has shown that carrying excess adipose tissue around your midsection is an indicator of increased risk for disease, but this goes beyond — or rather below — the muffin top. Visceral fat is adipose tissue that is deposited inside the abdomen — not on top of it — and that surrounds and sort of chokes up your internal organs. This kind of fat has been shown to increase the risk for chronic disease more so than the subcutaneous version because it is hormonally active, decreasing your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and increasing the risk of high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease. It also produces inflammatory substances and disrupts the hormones that regulate appetite, mood, weight and brain function.

Prevent the deposit of visceral fat by avoiding refined carbs and processed foods, which cause a spike in blood sugar, as well as high-fat and high-calorie foods, which inevitably get stored as fat. Research has also shown that eating trans fats may be associated with increases in visceral fat, and a study in The Journal of Clinical Investigation also uncovered an association with high-fructose corn syrup and the deposit of visceral fat. But make sure you replace your regular soda with water, tea or coffee rather than diet soda: A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that artificially sweetened soda was associated with an increase in waist circumference, which is an indicator of increased visceral fat.

Fun Fat Fact 

Fat tissue comes in a range of colors — white, brown and beige. White fat cells are those that are most obvious and that contain the highest concentration of fat globules. Brown and beige fat cells, however, are smaller, hold fewer fat globules and contain mitochondria, giving them their brown color. This kind of fat actually burns calories to generate heat, and research has shown that as little as 2 ounces of brown fat can burn several hundred calories per day! It has also been shown to positively affect insulin sensitivity and metabolism, reducing your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Exercise – specifically aerobic exercise — can actually lead to the “browning” of white fat cells, turning dormant, inactive tissue into more metabolically expensive tissue that burns rather than stores calories.

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Jump to increase your fat-burning potential.

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Do you remember jumping rope as a kid? Do you remember how much fun you had — not to mention how you could jump for what seemed like forever and never get tired? Fast-forward to today. Skipping is an inexpensive, super-effective, fat-burning exercise that most people can do just about anywhere. And we now have more options available to us — to take our “childhood love” to the next level.

For anyone who’s up for the challenge, you may want to consider Crossropes. These cool jump ropes come with adjustable weighted handles that allow you to increase your intensity as you get stronger, and they help you sculpt out a stronger, leaner and more athletic physique. You not only will get a great overall conditioning workout, but you also will improve your cardiovascular health. So go ahead, grab your ropes and jump on in!

Jump Rope Tip: Always try to skip on a padded surface and have proper shoes to protect your joints!

Beginner: 

If you are a beginner or just getting back into skipping, start with a regular speed rope that is not weighted.

Intermediate: 

If you are at an intermediate level, you are comfortable with skipping. Allow yourself to grab a weighted rope such as Crossrope. Start off at the lowest weight to test out your ability and tolerance level as you are skipping.

Advanced: 

If you are an advanced skipper, grab your weighted Crossrope and see what weight suits you best. Make sure you increase the weighted handles every three to six weeks to continue to challenge yourself and increase your strength. 

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