You work out zealously and eat healthy meals -- at least most of the time -- and the pounds are starting to drop off. You're looking and feeling more toned, too, just as you'd hoped.
But with all this effort, shouldn't you lose fat? Shouldn't the flab be dissolving faster? If you're of a certain age, you know the flab we're talking about.
If you're a woman, you may still have the dreaded muffin top, that slab of fat that spills stubbornly over the top of your best jeans, spoiling the look. Or if you're a man in that same bracket, you may have the unsightly pot belly that adds years to your otherwise youthful physique.
Shouldn't fat burning be faster? Not to mention easier?
Here are their five best fat-burning strategies:
1. How to Burn Fat: Get Realistic
Get real tip No. 1: "You can't spot reduce," says Darlene Sedlock, PhD, an associate professor of kinesiology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. "Nobody wants to hear that."
Translation: If you're hankering to get rid of the jeans spillover or the pot belly, you need to burn fat from head to toe. "Anything to reduce your overall body fat will help," she says.
Get real tip No. 2: You need to give it some time. "There's no easy fix to the flab," Sedlock says. "Over time, some of the flab will disappear," if you're diligent about the eating and exercise plans. Give it several months, she suggests. Your weight might not change, but you will notice a difference in the way your clothes fit, she says.
Get real tip No. 3: This is perhaps the cruelest. You probably can't expect to be as flab-free as when you were 20. "Skin loses elasticity as you age," Sedlock says. The sagging of the skin adds to the unsightly appearance of flab, she says.
Other factors also make flab a challenge, says Jim White, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in Virginia Beach, Va. who is a national spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "As we age, muscle mass declines, and metabolism slows, so we are definitely fighting an uphill battle."
So is some flab inevitable with age? "It seems to happen, but if you make a concentrated effort to avoid it, you can," Sedlock says. Too late if you're reading this article, of course, but preventing flab is a lot easier than banishing it, she says.
Even so, it's possible to reduce your fat and flab, White and Sedlock say. Besides being realistic, here are their best tips.
2. Fat-burning Workout: Pump Up the Cardio
A good overall cardiovascular conditioning exercise program is crucial to burn fat, say Sedlock and White. "Walking is excellent," White says, but most people have to pump it up a bit from their routine pace, especially if they've been exercising for a while and the flab isn't budging.
"Increase the days," White suggests. "If you work out two days, go to three. Or if you're jogging for half an hour, increase it to 45 minutes or an hour."
Interval training -- that is, alternating bursts of intense activity with bursts of lighter activity -- is a good way to burn more fat, White says. "Walk for five minutes, then jog for five," he says, then repeat. That strategy will burn overall more calories and more fat. If you are already jogging, jog then sprint to mix it up, he says.
Increasing intensity for a short period within your regular workout will burn more total calories and therefore more fat, Sedlock says.
3. Fat-burning Workout: Pump Iron or Do Other Strength Training
If you're trying to banish flab, weight training three times a week for a half hour each session -- if you're a beginner -- is ideal, White says. Once your flab is under control, two weight training sessions a week usually will help you maintain tone, he says.
"Work the full body," he says, rather than focus only on, say, triceps work for flabby upper arms. A full workout works all the major muscle groups, not just the flabby ones.
If you're a beginner to weights or other kinds of strength training, such as resistance bands, get some expert instruction first by hiring a personal trainer for a session or two, experts suggest.
You can incorporate the full-body weight training exercises that focus on your flabby areas, of course, White says. "For the muffin top, focus on the [abdominal] oblique muscles by doing bicycle kicks," he says, "or do oblique twists with the cable [weight] machine."
A simpler at-home exercise to burn fat, White says, is: Get a broom, hold it straight up over your head, then lean to the right and the left. You should feel the effort in your so-called love handles.
For flabby upper arms, you can do dumbbell kickbacks with hand weights. (With upper arm parallel to the floor and bent at the elbow, lean over a weight bench or other low bench with your other arm supporting your body. Extend the lower arm holding the weight until it is straight. Repeat and switch the weight to the other hand.)
To maximize the fat burning during weight training, women should aim for 12 to 15 repetitions per exercise, White says, and focus on a higher number of reps rather than constantly boosting the weight. Men should aim for eight to 12 reps and increase the weight periodically.
4. Fat-Burning Workout: Crunch Your Flab
Although a lot of people think a thousand sit-ups or crunches a day will get rid of the flab, that's not entirely true, Sedlock says. "Sit-ups aren't going to get rid of your abdominal fat, per se," she says. "Sit-ups strengthen the abdominal musculature." So that means with enough sit-ups your tummy should have a better appearance, she says.
"If part of the muffin top is due to those muscles not being exercised for a long time, toning up those muscles may help," she adds.
Pot bellies can be toned up with crunches and reverse crunches (lie flat and raise your hips and legs to work the lower abdominals).
5. How to Lose Fat: Overhaul Your Diet
Every other week, it seems, there's some new "fat-burning" food or supplement. On the list: chili peppers, low-fat dairy, and numerous dietary supplements.
There's some truth to the fat-burning food claims. "Some studies show certain foods can speed metabolism," White says.
For instance, capsinoids -- compounds derived from chili peppers -- increased fat burning slightly, and more so in subjects who had a body mass index (BMI) over 25, the beginning of overweight, according to Japanese researchers who published the study in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry.
Researchers have debated the role of dairy foods in weight management. Diets with at least three daily servings of [low-fat] dairy products speed weight loss and body fat loss in obese people compared to a diet with little dairy, according to Michael Zemel, PhD, of the University of Tennessee, who has published his results of the value of dairy in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and other journals.
But White says don't rely on the so-called fat-busting foods to banish flab while you eat whatever you want the rest of the day. Instead, White suggests, incorporate the fat-burning foods into a sound diet.
What's sound and flab-unfriendly? Whole grains, lean protein, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and eight glasses of water daily, White says.
Small frequent meals also help you lose weight, White says, although not all experts agree that many mini-meals are better than three square meals.
"I have a client who came in eating one [huge] meal a day, and he weighed 300 pounds," White says. He put the man on five small, healthy meals a day. He lost weight, White says, and was amazed. Eating often also helps keep your energy levels up, White says.