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Exercise can do more than make you feel good and whittle your waist—it can actually reduce the size of fat cells in the abdomen, according to the results of a study published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Exercise is critical to maintaining overall health. It promotes cardiovascular, mental, and emotional health and helps us to maintain a healthy weight. It can improve sleep, prevent disease, and boost energy and stamina. Experts agree that maintaining a regular exercise program is one of the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle. And now it appears that exercise may actually play favorites to certain fat cells—and increase the body’s breakdown of fat cells in the abdomen.

Researchers conducted a study that included 45 obese women who were randomly assigned to three groups: reduced calorie intake; reduced calorie intake plus moderate walking three days per week; reduced calorie intake plus intense walking three days per week. After 20 weeks, all three groups lost weight and body fat; however, there was a key difference between the exercisers and the non-exercisers.

When the researchers took samples of body fat from just below the skin’s surface, they found that women in both exercise groups experienced about an 18 percent reduction in the size of the abdominal fat cells, whereas the non-exercisers experienced no change. They did not observe the same phenomena in fat cells in the hip area.

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The researchers concluded that exercise may actually help shrink abdominal fat cells—indicating that diet alone may not be enough in the quest to lose weight. So, why the fuss over abdominal fat? It has been linked to a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.

The bottom line—exercise may be an important factor in the distribution of body fat. People who include exercise in their weight loss program may reduce their abdominal fat—and their risk of disease. In fact, the changes in abdominal fat cells might benefit health even in the absence of significant weight loss.


You T, Murphy KM, Lyles MF, et al. Addition of aerobic exercise to dietary weight loss preferentially reduces abdominal adipocyte size. International Journal of Obesity. 2006; 30: 1211-1216.