The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Pear your apple shape with exercise

Posted in
Live well

Monday, Jan 05, 2009

People who carry much of their weight – well, actually, body fat – around their middle are said to be “apple-shaped.”  Conversely, “pear-shaped” people have most of their body fat in their hips, buttocks, and thighs.  It has been well-established that apple-shaped people are at greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and many other chronic conditions than pear-shaped people.  It is believed that the fat stored around the internal organs in the abdominal area has properties that make it more dangerous than “pinch an inch” fat.  That is, the fat stored right beneath the skin.  The question that numerous scientists have attempted to answer is what will help reduce abdominal fat and thus, reduce risk for disease?

At least a partial answer is – ta da! – physical activity.  Any physical activity that contributes to you burning more calories than you eat will cause you to burn some of your stored body fat (in your belly and elsewhere) to cover the energy deficit.  But new research from the University of Virginia suggests that vigorous exercise is more effective in mobilizing abdominal body fat than light to moderate exercise1.

In this study, 27 obese, middle-aged women participated in either a no exercise, light- to moderate-intensity exercise, or high-intensity exercise intervention for 16 weeks.  In the exercise groups, the exercise procedures were adjusted so that the two groups didn’t differ in terms of total calories burned through exercise.  The results of the study showed that the high-intensity exercisers lost statistically significant amounts of weight and reduced their body mass index and total body fat mass significantly.  Of particular interest was that the high-intensity exercisers significantly reduced their abdominal fat, including the fat below the skin in the belly area and most importantly, the fat around their internal organs.  The control and moderate-intensity exercisers did not see significant changes in these abdominal obesity measures.

Curiously, despite the differences in body composition outcomes between the study groups, there were  no differences between groups on most of the measured health outcome parameters such as blood triglycerides or HDL-cholesterol.  The researchers concluded that the study may needed to have been longer in duration and/or included more subjects to have the changes or differences between groups on  important health parameters be statistically significant.

So what’s the bottom line?  Well, more studies are needed needed to fully understand how to reduce dangerous belly fat.  Until that time, doing some physical activity is better than doing nothing.  Then move toward regularly doing at least moderate-intensity physical activity and, if you are physically capable given your fitness and health conditions, increase to doing vigorous activity on a regular basis.

What are ways you can include more vigorous intensity activity in your life? 1 Irving BA, et al.  Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition.  Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise.  2008;40(11):1863-1872.