You're fit, but are you still fat?

A running friend and I walked into a bar (no, this is not the start of a joke) and he told me he was sick of his stomach fat. I hadn’t noticed it, but it was bothering him. Apparently it was proving difficult to budge despite rigorous running and cross training. It was a passing comment - he’s not the sort to dwell on body issues, and besides we were at a bar drinking wine, so it was a slight case of "der fred".

Anyway, the comment struck me because I reckon stomach fat is a bugbear for a lot of people who exercise and especially those who are, let’s say, well and truly in the prime of their lives. This sort of fat annoys both sexes because it makes its presence felt all the time - whether doing up a belt or wearing a dress.

Stomach fat taunts us. How often do you hear women ask “does my gut look big in this?”. We don’t need to ask because we know; we only have to look down. And for blokes - is there a moment when you hesitate and conduct an internal debate before buying that slim-fit shirt: “Maybe I should go for classic cut? Surely not! I’m a runner aren’t I?” Fact is, flab out front doesn’t lie.

I’ll confess, apart from the economy of running - shoes on, out the door and you’re under way - I was also attracted to it because it’s a weight-bearing sport and therefore great for achieving a leaner physique. Unlike swimming which made me bulk up, especially around the shoulders. And don’t get me started about how many Weet-Bix I could down after a training session, whereas after running sometimes I have to force myself to eat.

So it’s particularly galling when you get hot spots of fat, like around the middle. Right before summer. I decided to seek the wisdom of exercise physiologist Dean McNamara, principal of Sydney Sports & Exercise Physiology.

Is belly fat more difficult to shift than other fat?

Yes, the area around your abdomen tends to be a difficult area for your body to utilise fat. This is mainly due to blood flow and/or the ratio of alpha and beta adrenoreceptors in this area. There is some suggestion that “spot reduction” in body fat is possible by shifting hormonal balances in the body through certain foods and supplementation. But while a balanced hormonal level is very important for weight loss, there is no really strong evidence that this will lead to spot reduction in body fat.

Are there any specific drills or exercises for runners wanting to shed stomach fat? (eg. knee lifts during a run?)

Runners who are struggling to shed unwanted areas of fatty tissue need to review their training program. Are they doing enough resistance training, if any? If they are, are they doing the right thing?


Resistance training is very important in preparing the body to withstand the repetitive load of running, appropriately increase lean muscle mass, address musculoskeletal dysfunctions associated with running injuries, and provide a different training stimulus. And lastly, a well designed strength program will have a positive interaction with how your hormones interact within your body. Poor - or lack of - strength training is one of the biggest downfalls I see in amateur runners.

Where do runners lose weight first on their bodies (and second and third)?

Runners won’t lose weight faster in one place more than any other person or athlete. The body will utilise fat stores from the easiest locations first, eg. arms, shoulders and upper back. It may be misleading that runners lose fat around their legs, but this may be more a case of leg muscle hypertrophy rather than fat loss.

Is this different for men and for women?

Men tend to lose weight faster than women as a general comment. There are many factors at play, though. Basically, it will usually come down to the larger proportion of muscle tissue that males have, which results in a greater measure of resting metabolic rate and energy expenditure during training.

Is it age related?

Yes. Your metabolic rate will reduce with age.

Are there age-related fat-prone areas?

Yes,  during menopause, as the ratio of fat to lean tissue shifts and fat storage begins favouring the upper body over the hips and thighs.

Key foods to avoid/ consume if you're serious about shedding those couple of inches around the middle.

This is a very open-ended question. One of the major issues for amateur athletes is alcohol consumption and this would be the first place I would target if someone requires to lose fat mass. There have been many discussions about whether high fat, low carb diets are actually appropriate. Before starting any such diet, I would review the motivations of the source from which you are obtaining such information and if in doubt, seek your local accredited sports dietitian.

So, the key messages from Dean are simple: resistance training, and resist the alcohol. How do you keep the weight off the middle? Do you do enough resistance training? And do you have a good bar joke?

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