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Three Reasons People Struggle To Lose Belly Fat Even When They Exercise

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 12 November 2014
Hits: 11617

One of the most popular questions I am often asked is, “My exercise program is not helping to lose belly fat, what exercises are best to help me?” My answer usually is something like, “how do you handle stress, and what is your food like?” This prompts a confused look from the person asking the question as they were hoping I could give them some miraculous training program to give them a six pack. In my 15 years as a personal trainer this question is without a doubt the most frustrating thing I am regularly asked as there are so many people with the belief that they can exercise their way to good health. We see this all the time, the person who destroys their body with endless cardio sessions to get sweaty but never changes in appearance. It almost seems that the harder they workout the worse they get. The people who struggle to lose the gut no matter how much exercise they complete need to recognise their solution is not a new workout, or more intense training, but adopting more effective strategies of handling STRESS and eating quality NUTRITION. In this article we are going to give you the secrets to getting rid of the gut if you are someone stuck in this rut of not getting anywhere no matter what you do.

We all want to have a nice flat stomach for besides the obvious benefit of looking good we know there is many great health benefits associated with less belly fat. Excessive visceral fat is linked with many diseases due to its location being so close to many vital organs, such as the pancreas, liver, and intestines. The higher the amount of visceral fat a person stores, the more at risk they are for certain health complications, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

We know that exercise can help to reduce it but as we explained in the introduction there are many people already exercising intensely but not making much progress to their waistline. I applaud these people for making a great effort and getting started, unfortunately their efforts may be wasted if their plan is based on knowledge that simply does not work.

There are three big mistakes this person may be making.

Mistake Number 1 – Unaware of the Damage Caused By Stress

When someone is working out all the time but they are not losing the belly fat I am highly suspicious of stress as the reason behind their lack of results. There is usually two things happening.

Firstly whenever cortisol levels (your stress hormones) are chronically high, it suppresses your androgens (growth hormones), so things like testosterone and growth hormone are suppressed, which is not good if you are trying to add muscle to get stronger and fitter. You need more muscle to speed up your metabolism so you are already off to a bad start.

Secondly as testosterone decreases, your gluco-corticoids or your stress hormones are elevated. One of the first reactions is that the body thinks that it’s going to have a long-term energy crisis, so to prepare for this situation our bodies start accumulating fat right around the belly button. This is your signal that this is a chronic stress related problem, not a lack of cardio workouts. Exercise is excellent to counter the damage of stress but it can also add to your stress if not used wisely.

If you start trying to crush your body with endless exercises and trying to starve yourself with a restrictive diet your body reacts to this as more STRESS! Instead of having a positive effect and helping the body to grow muscle, repair damaged tissues and increase metabolic rate for more energy, the effect is the exact opposite. The body senses danger and releases more cortisol and decreases growth and repair hormones crucial to a healthy body.

The message is clear that stress will ruin your health very quickly and you must acknowledge the damage it causes.

Stress is needed to prepare us for survival and this is called "Fight of flight" response. In a stressful situation the body secretes stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to our arms and legs in order to help us either run away fast, or, stay and fight. This is good in life and death situations as these hormones will possibly save your life. But it is not good if this system is turned on all the time.

An unchecked stress response can cause repeated spikes in blood pressure increasing the chances of a stroke. You will begin to stockpile fat around the abdomen due to the high levels of the stress hormone cortisol being activated lowering IGF-1 and maintaining high levels of glucose in the bloodstream. This endless supply of cortisol greatly weakens the immune system and exposes the body to deadly diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Make sure you read the articles in the links below as we provide a stack of information on this complex subject.

Mistake Number 2 – Poor Quality Nutrition & Eating Habits

Over the years we have found some secrets that we would like to share with you, we have trialled these on ourselves and still follow these eating habits. The biggest piece of advice I can give to you about eating right is THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL DIET!

Only what works for you. There are some things I will cover here that contradict each other. Knowing which one works best for you will take time as you will need to test it to find how your body responds. Nutrition is a huge piece of the puzzle and can be very confusing for some people to get right. Make no mistake you will not get very far if you do not get this step right.

Where do you start?

Forget about counting calories, the first thing you need to do is make sure you EAT GOOD QUALITY FOOD. The old saying you are what you eat is so true.

Cutting back and ideally eliminating processed foods as much as you can is a great start. This will ensure your nutrition is from fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy and grains that are loaded with the essential vitamins and nutrients your body needs. If it is in a packet, bottle, or jar, don’t buy it. This means it is processed in some way so try to minimise as much of these foods as you can. By completing this step you are already half way there!

Secondly you need to find the foods that best fuel your body. What works for me may be completely different for what you need to eat. For example certain foods may give me energy and feeling great might make you sleepy and sluggish.  You must learn to listen to your body, keeping a food diary for a month can help with this, not only writing down the foods that you eat, but how they make you feel.

  • Did they increase your energy?
  • Did you crave sugar after a certain meal?
  • Did the last meal make you sleepy or wired up?

The answers to these questions are all clues as to what fuel mix your body needs and have a lot to do with WHAT YOU EAT.

Our modern western diet is so high in carbohydrates, especially high energy carbohydrates.  We seem to be always in a hurry and are often looking for convenience when it comes to food choices, which often leads to poor food choices.  To avoid putting yourself in this situation it is vital you plan your meals in advance. For some amazing tips on how to do this make sure you check out this article we put out earlier this year with some amazing ideas for creating healthy food really quick.

Planning and preparation is everything for nutrition success

Another classic mistake people make with the quality of their food is avoiding fat.  I will give you a little tip that will change your perspective about fat forever.

“You cannot get fat by eating fat”

You are more likely to get fat from eating sugars and highly processed foods. And interestingly it is the low fat products that often have high levels of sugar.  If you eat a diet that is high in sugar and grains, the sugar gets metabolized to fat (and is stored as fat in your fat cells), which in turn releases surges in the hormone leptin. Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to it (just as your body can become resistant to insulin). And when you become leptin-resistant, your body can no longer "hear" the messages telling it to stop eating, burn fat, -- so you remain hungry, you crave sweets, and your body stores more fat. Leptin-resistance also causes an increase in belly fat, sending you on a vicious cycle of hunger, fat storage and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Below are two great articles to read with more detail about sugar and saturated fats.

A common diet would be very high in high energy carbohydrates, all the foods that will help to increase belly fat. For me I try to avoid high energy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice, potato and include a lot of low energy carbohydrates in my diet. Great examples of these are your green vegetables, and above ground vegetables. I include protein with each meal making sure to add good quality fats like avocados, butter, coconut oil and nuts. 

There is a detailed nutrition report you can download instantly from our website with all the information about how to do this. We provide you with all the tools for helping you find the fuel mix that is just right for you.

Why You Should Never Skip Meals

Let’s say you have your stress and food quality under control and you are exercising consistently but still nothing is happening. This is when we look at WHEN YOU EAT.

When people skip meals, many don’t even realise that they’re doing it. They tend to just get caught up with what they’re doing and I find this to be particularly common with people that work at computers. They seem to become mesmerised and lose track of time making them eat at weird times during the day.

There is research out there showing that whenever we are in front of a television screen or even a computer screen that the basal metabolic rate can drop below your normal metabolic rate.

In my 15 years as a Personal Trainer I have often found that the people who had the most trouble losing weight, 90% of the time were also people who regularly skipped meals. It is really important for people to really understand what happens when they are skipping meals while they’re working at computers and end up in a hypnotic dream like state. This is a real problem for people that are trying to manage their weight or their body shape because they don’t realise that essentially they are reducing the number of calories their body is burning every minute by going into this state! This just becomes a bad habit and if it remains unchecked for too long becomes increasingly hard to change!

How often should you eat?

Never Go Longer Than 4 Hours without Eating

This all depends on the person but as a general rule we would say every four hours.

Firstly we all know that this will slow down your metabolism but it will also start to play havoc with other parts of your hormonal system. Now some people may go more than four hours without eating, yet still eat three meals a day and that is fine. The problem may be if you see is that their meal spacing is chaotic. For example they eat a light breakfast at 6am, but eat lunch until 1pm that is some  kind of sandwich, and then come home at 530pm and eat every snack in sight for they are so hungry before setting down for a huge dinner at 7pm. They wake up so full and bloated they do not feel like breakfast and start the whole process all over again. Sound familiar?

One of the things that happens when people have improper meal spacing is that they go from having normal food and normal blood sugar to low blood sugar and hypoglycaemia and the rebound effect is that if they eat too close together to compensate, that they overload their body with too much food. This puts tremendous stress on the body which has to activate the immune system to cope with the stress. Remember how dangerous this is from step one? Well now it is happening again.

If you are a person who does not have much reserve and blood sugars drop you will often see this person reach for a coffee or something sweet dessert to give them a kick and get their blood sugars up again. On and on this happens throughout the day and this cycle becomes entrenched and wreaks havoc on the body.

The body can easily be trained into any rhythm—good or bad. It is up to us which one we teach it.

If you have improper meal spacing, it can become engrained into your system constantly putting you in situations of blood sugar crisis where you over-eat or reach for sugar foods to boost your levels back up. If you can change this habit by having a plan to eat regularly and within four hours you avoid being put in this situation. Willpower will never beat a strong food craving.

Three to four hours is ideal meal spacing depending on an each person's needs. When you do make this change it may take some time for your body to adjust to the new schedule. The body may not even be in blood sugar crisis or hungry but sending cravings for food at a certain time based on the habits of the past. Great ways to avoid this is to make sure your meals around the time you normally crave bad foods have a good serving of protein and fat. This keeps you full for longer and supresses the cravings for sugar.

The liver and your digestive system, in combination with your hormones perform many functions in order for our meals and drinks to be fully digested, broken down and utilized for energy and maintenance of the system. For example, if you normally eat or drink coffee in the morning and you’re going to the local cafe, there will be going to be a lot of harmful toxins in that coffee (yes coffee is toxic) and at the time of the day that you normally drink the coffee, the liver will begin stimulating or building enzymes to handle those toxins in preparation for the coffee.

There is a reflex at every level of your hormones almost predicting when you are going to have the toxic coffee and start preparing everything at the exact time of day every day! Pretty scary stuff isn't it?But when you think about it you will remember many occasions thinking or craving of a coffee at a certain time and this is why. And even when we change our meal spacing, we must remember that this biochemical preparation, which then triggers cravings so that the enzymes and nutrients aren’t wasted, can result in people overeating.

This is why it is so important to pay attention to the signals your body sends out after eating a meal so you give yourself every chance of avoiding this scenario.

Whatever You Do, Don't Skip Breakfast….or Should You?

I always used to tell people that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and you should never skip this meal. The theory behind this is when you skip breakfast it tends to throw your body into a blood sugar crisis and elevate cortisol levels right from the start. This puts you into a constant roller coaster of energy spikes and dips that is very stressful to your body and can disrupt your life and begin to cause weight gain. We spoke about this earlier with the person who ate a light breakfast and by later in the day was over-eating. By eating a “good breakfast” this person could potentially avoid all the over-eating and pick-me-up meals during the day as the blood sugars are balanced right from the beginning.

I highlighted the words “good breakfast” as many people who do eat breakfast eat a poor quality meal loaded with sugar. Many popular breakfast cereals have your daily requirement of sugar in one serving. Many breakfasts are made for convenience and lacking in good quality nutrients. Poached eggs with some vegetables is a great breakfast and would give your body a ton of great nutrition to start the day well.


I am not rigid on this principle as I do suggest to some people to skip breakfast entirely. I know this sounds very contradictory so let me explain.

On a biochemical level each of us is as unique as we are in our fingerprints and the way we process foods can vary substantially. This means that some people will be better served from missing breakfast and using what is known as Intermittent Fasting. Intermittent Fasting mimics the cycling of feasting (feeding) and famine (fasting).

One of our trainers Melissa has been using this for the past 8 months and this works perfectly for her. She eats her meals between 12noon and 8pm being careful to eat the right type of foods to supply her energy needs. The Ketogenic diet works best with fasting. Without even trying to lose weight Melissa has lost over 8kg and has found this type of eating provides great energy and suits her food choices and lifestyle.

Read our article – All you need to know about the Keto diet to see more about what foods she eats and how it all works.

The key to the intermittent fasting is trying to force your body to burning fat for its fuel source instead of carbohydrates and sugar.  This is why you need to use the Keto diet which comprises over 70% of your macronutrients from fats. There is very little carbohydrates with this diet and some find this transition very difficult. Intermittent fasting helps to reduce the quantity of food we eat which may be great for the person who over-eats all the time.

Watch the videos about Keto diet and fasting below to learn more about this.


Before you run out and start intermittent fasting and Keto diet you must understand that it takes time to adjust to this and some people it may not be the best method. The Keto diet may not work for some people as this eating can cause digestion problems and constipation. Some people may need some carbohydrates in their diet as their body struggles to break down the quantity of fats from the ketogenic diet. Ignoring in pursuit of trying to lose weight will cause a multitude of very serious health problems.

Other people like myself love to do cycling and running and high intensity work that will require carbohydrates to perform at my best. This type of eating will compromise my sporting performance and leave me feeling lethargic and depleted. I know this for sure as I tried it.

This brings me to mistake number three.

Mistake Number 3 – Poor Exercise Choices

The person who is struggling to shed the weight and exercising must look carefully at what exercise program they are doing for it is obviously is not working.

Sometimes people think it is a lot of ab exercises they need with the most common exercise being the sit up. I will give you a little secret, sit ups won’t help you lose belly fat at all even if you did 1000 per day. They will help you get a disc bulge though and a lifetime of severe back pain. Anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge with exercise will know you cannot spot reduce. Your body will take fat from all over the body, not just the area you are working out, and when it comes to the abdominal area this is usually the last place it will take fat from. The reason for this is the body uses the fat like a shield for the internal organs.

The other problem we see with exercise is the over use of long slow cardio sessions.

The person who thinks if you don’t get a sweat then it is not a good workout is destined for failure! This person often counts how many calories they have burned and tries to destroy their body with more exercise. Unfortunately calorie counting rarely works as there is so many problems with relying on this method.

See articles by Precision Nutrition for more on this.

Most important part of using this method is how much stress is placed on the body from excessive cardio. And you will see shortly how destructive this can be to your body and why your exercise efforts are actually backfiring.

Now do not take this as you should not exercise and all cardio is evil for it is not. You just need to start to see how you need to gain a better understanding of the exercise that will promote positive adaptation to the body, as opposed to destructive.

The best exercise choices are strength training and interval training.

Building muscle should be the MOST important activity you do if your goal is to lose weight because increasing muscle is the best way to increase your Metabolic Rate ( the rate at which your body burns energy at rest). The breakup of the factors that influence your body’s metabolism over a 24 our period is as follows:

  • Lean Muscle Mass = 66%
  • Exercise = 17%
  • Eating = 12%
  • Body Temperature = 5%

(Reference: Metabolic

Adding muscle does so much more than just speed up your metabolism and is essential to completing many other tasks.

  • Muscle helps to regulate hormones and prevents disease like diabetes and cancer often caused from insulin resistance
  • Muscle improves bone density and prevents bone fractures, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, and can even reverse arthritis.
  • Muscle prevents injury and improves stability across all joints
  • Muscle improves sporting performance by increasing speed and power.

The long slow cardio workouts will not be able to complete these functions. They will improve slightly but not to the level they need to be for dramatic improvement and overall health.

If you want to get sweaty and improve your fitness levels the use of interval training is the best.

This is where you break your exercise session into short segments that alternate high intensity with a rest period in-between. For example 10 sets of 200m sprints with a 1 minute rest between each set.

Scientific researchers found this type of exercise works because it produces a unique metabolic response. Intermittent sprinting produces high levels of chemical compounds called catecholamines, which allow more fat to be burned from under your skin and within your muscles. The resulting increase in fat oxidation is thought to drive the increased weight loss. The best part of this training is you don't need very much time to do it as a great session might last only 20 minutes!

There is so many exciting and fun ways to incorporate strength and interval training together and you will find some amazing programs in our special report called the Little Black Book of Training Secrets with 101 workouts done for you. Click here to get your report now.


It is fair to say the Western lifestyle has led people to eat more food than our body actually requires and combined with the fact we are more sedentary it is no wonder we gain weight. Exercise is very important to help us overcome the sedentary part of our lifestyle however we cannot ignore stress and nutrition. Finding the right nutrition approach might be the total game changer for you.

The only way to know what nutritional approach is right for you is to test it out. It is wise to read more information about this and speak to a Nutritionist or Dietician who is open to finding the right eating method for you. A good expert will be open to many ideas and not rigid with a belief we should all eat the same way.

Lastly do not underestimate the damage stress can cause to your body and sabotage all of your exercise and nutrition efforts. This is such a complex topic to explain and there is no easy answer to this if you are struggling in this area. I encourage you to find people to help you in this area and I assure you it will be time and money well spent.

The main thing to get from this article is that you cannot rely on exercise alone to get yourself into shape.

If you would like to know more about our Metabolic Typing Weight Loss Program click the image below to request a free consultation.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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