A glance at the glossy magazines on the supermarket shelf may leave you wondering if contracting your abdominal muscles is all it takes to achieve a flat belly -- but the real world doesn't quite work that way. While ab-contracting exercises are fab for creating an enviable six-pack, they won't shave away fat. If you long for a slimmer stomach, a smart eating strategy and increased physical activity are the prescription you need.
Losing Belly Fat
Body fat is like a backup plan in case of starvation. Your body converts energy from food, which is measured in calories, into fat when you consume more than you need for daily activity. Likewise, your body burns stored fat when you use more calories than you eat. Therefore, you lose weight by creating a calorie deficit; eating less and exercising more is the best way to achieve this. To figure out how many calories you burn, Harvard Medical School recommends multiplying your weight times the number 15; so at 135 pounds, you probably burn about 2,025 calories a day. If you're sedentary now or have any health conditions, see your doctor before starting a weight-loss program.
Ab Contraction Exercises
When you perform situps, crunches or other ab moves that require bending, you are performing isotonic contractions; when you tense your muscles while otherwise remaining still, you're performing isometric contractions. Both of these types of exercise strengthen and tone muscles -- plus, by building muscle tissue you speed up your metabolism for faster weight loss. But don't just focus on your abs -- for balance and good posture, perform similar strength-training moves for arms, legs, hips, back and chest. In addition, get 30 to 60 minutes of cardio five days per week for maximum calorie-burning; walk, run, swim, dance or use the elliptical.
Ab Belts and Contractions
Ab belts and similar products claim to flatten your abs without exercise by using electric currents to force muscle contractions. While these devices are approved for treating muscle atrophy or spasms among injured or ill people, they won't remove fat. Plus, these contraptions aren't proven to sculpt muscles in healthy people, and they sometimes cause burns or skin irritation, according to Columbia University Health.
Flat Belly Tips
In addition to burning fat, banish bloating for an even flatter stomach. MayoClinic.com recommends avoiding fat-laden foods such as full-fat dairy as well as carbonated beverages. In addition, certain otherwise-healthy foods are likely to cause gas, and should be skipped on stomach-baring days: These include beans, broccoli and cabbage. Also avoid smoking cigarettes, sipping from a straw, chewing gum and sucking on hard candy -- these activities can make you swallow air, leading to bloating.
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.