Belly fat is linked to severe health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, fatty liver, and even depression. What exercise is the most effective for reducing the 2 types of belly fat: subcutaneous and visceral? Let’s look at the research to see how you can optimize your workouts right now.

Metabolic Syndrome

Before we dove into the research, it’s important to define metabolic syndrome because that’s exactly what this study was testing. To have metabolic syndrome, you need to have three of the following five criteria:

  1. Central obesity, which means your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches in women or greater than 40 inches in men.
  2. Having elevated triglycerides that are greater than 150 mg/dL.
  3. Having HDL that’s less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women.
  4. Having high blood pressure that’s greater than 130/85 mmHg.
  5. Lastly, having elevated fasting blood sugars that are 100 mg/dL or more.


Now, let’s look at a fascinating study in which the researchers randomly assigned people into three arms to ask the question of what type of exercise causes the most amount of abdominal weight loss.

The study included 27 middle-aged women, average age 51, and they all had metabolic syndrome. The study consisted of three arms.  The first arm was the control arm, in which the participants weren’t given any exercise prescription.

The second arm was a low-intensity exercise treatment (LIET). In this arm, they had the participants exercise five days per week. The researchers defined low intensity as being below the participant’s lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is defined as the exercise intensity where lactate starts to build up in the blood.  Also, the researchers also used a Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. The researchers aimed for an RPE of 10 to 12  on a scale from 0 (no exertion) to 20 (maximal exertion) for the low-intensity group.

The third arm was high-intensity exercise treatment (HIET). Here the participants trained for three days of high intensity (Mondays, Wednesday, Friday) interspersed with two days of low intensity (Tuesdays, Wednesdays).  The researchers defined high intensity as above the lactate threshold but below their VO2 max. A simple definition of VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that our body can deliver to our muscles per minute. It is a standardized way to assess cardiorespiratory fitness.  The researchers also aimed for an RPE between 15 to 17.  


So what did they find? Looking at waist circumference, there was a significant reduction in the HIET intensity group comparing pre and post and comparing to the LIET group. The LIET group’s post results compared to pre did not reach statistical significance.

Next, the researchers looked at abdominal fat.  There was a statistically significant reduction in both the total fat and subcutaneous fat in the HIET group compared to the LIET group. 

The HIET group had a significant drop in abdominal visceral fat when examining pre vs. post. However, this did not reach statistical significance compared to the LIET group.

The researchers then looked at VO2 max. Both the LIET and HIET arms had a significant increase in their VO2 max. However, only the HIET arm had a statistically significant change.


So what are the limitations of this study before we apply the results? Well, the first thing is, is they weren’t looking at dietary records. As a result, it is possible that dietary macronutrients or caloric differences between the HIET and LIET arms could explain the differences. However, other studies have shown similar results leading to exercise intensity being more likely the culprit here.

Another small limitation is the use of the Borg RPE scale. This is a subjective scale so participants could overestimate their perceived exertion.  In other words, if participants didn’t feel like giving it their all that day, they could tell the researchers that they feel like a 16 or 17 on the RPE scale, even though they may not be working as hard.

Lastly, there is some thought that a multi-slice CT scan would be more accurate than the single slice CT used in this study.  However, the difference is likely to be small and not affect the overall outcome of the study. 

Bottom Line

This study’s main take-home is that high-intensity training is better for both subcutaneous and visceral fat loss.

Now, you don’t have to do high-intensity training every single day because it’s easy to get burned out doing it daily.  Aim for increasing your workout intensity two to three times per week.  Here are some examples of high-intensity workouts to try:

  • Tabata workout: 20 seconds of maximal effort with 10 seconds of rest for 8 rounds. The total time is only 4 minutes.
  • Sprinting for 30 seconds with 30 seconds of rest for 10 rounds. The total time here is 10 minutes

You can use these or any variants of these with any workout: biking, jogging, squat jumps, battle ropes, kettlebell or dumbbell training.

Finally, to maximize your results, trying combining high-intensity workouts with a Whole Food plant-based diet. This is the ideal recipe for becoming healthier, getting rid of that stubborn belly fat, and making sure that you’re making choices that are not just good for you but also for your children’s future and the health of our planet.

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Sean Hashmi MD
Articles: 56

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