If a genie gave you the chance to change one thing about your body, what would you wish for? If you'd ask for a flatter belly, you've got plenty of company—72 percent of women ages 45 to 64 named the abs the body part they felt most insecure about, according to a recent survey by the research firm Mintel. It's no wonder. The more birthday candles you blow out, the more difficult it is to keep belly fat at bay. (Search: What are the risks of having too much belly fat?)
In your youth, estrogen surges encourage your body to store protective fat in the hips and buttocks to prepare for pregnancy. As estrogen levels begin dropping in your 40s and 50s, lower-body fat pulls up stakes and resettles right where you don't want it: on your stomach. "The body stores fat in the belly because it can access and use that fat quickly for energy, which was critical hundreds of years ago, when the body was fine-tuned for periods of starvation," says Marie Savard, MD, a women's health physician in Philadelphia and the author of The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness.
Another belly inflator: "Starting around age 30, sedentary women lose 5 to 7 pounds of muscle every decade," says Wayne Westcott, PhD, a Prevention advisory board member and director of fitness research at Quincy College in Massachusetts. "This lowers your metabolic rate by 2 to 4 percent every 10 years, causing you to slowly pack on weight even if you're not eating more calories."
Discover how to lose up to 8 pounds in 3 days with the Belly Melt Diet.
How Much Belly Fat Is Too Much?
You don't need to see a doctor to know if you have too much abdominal fat. Just pull out a tape measure and wrap it around your waist. If the result is under 35 inches (under 40 inches for a man), give yourself a clean bill of belly health.
A bigger belly not only affects your wardrobe, it also sets you up for health problems. Underneath the subcutaneous fat (the muffin top you can grab with your hand) lies more harmful visceral fat, which builds up around your organs and pushes against your abdominal wall. "Visceral fat produces chemicals that create harmful inflammation in the body, increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer," says Scott Isaacs, MD, a clinical instructor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and the author of Hormonal Balance. The good news: Whittling your waist a mere 2 inches is enough to take you out of the danger zone.
Video: A Workout to Trim Your Muffin Top
Follow our plan for a strong, slim, and healthy middle in your 40s, 50s, and 60s. Each decade builds on the one before, so you'll have an arsenal of strategies by the time you reach your 60s. Starting the plan midway? Review the other decades and build to where you need to be. You could see results in as few as 2 weeks!
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Your Abs Now
There's a good chance you're starting to notice a little extra belly flab. That's because as you begin perimenopause, estrogen levels start to drop—and your metabolism dips too if you don't exercise regularly. Stress may also contribute, as tension triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which causes your body to store more visceral fat.
Big-Belly Health Risk
Low bone density: A bigger-than-ideal belly puts you at greater risk of osteoporosis, according to a study in the journal Bone. "High visceral fat is associated with decreased levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1, which are both important for bone health," says Miriam A. Bredella, MD, lead study author and associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School.
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