In a new study, researchers sought to determine whether exercise or medication was the best way to get rid of dangerous visceral fat, which hides between the internal organs near the waistline.
The findings, published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, show that while both interventions work, exercise appears to be more efficient at melting away this “deep belly fat.”
Previous research has linked the accumulation of visceral fat to depression, heart disease, hormone dysfunction and diabetes.
“Visceral fat can affect local organs or the entire body system. Systemically it can affect your heart and liver, as well as abdominal organs,” said senior author and cardiologist Dr. Ian J. Neeland, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center.
“When studies use weight or body mass index as a metric, we don’t know if the interventions are reducing fat everywhere in the body, or just near the surface.”
For the new study, UT researchers evaluated changes in visceral fat in 3,602 participants over a 6-month period as measured by computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They found that while both exercise and medicine resulted in less visceral fat, exercise was more effective.
“The location and type of fat is important. If you just measure weight or BMI, you can underestimate the benefit to your health of losing weight,” said Neeland, a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care. “Exercise can actually melt visceral fat.”
Participants in the exercise trials were 65 percent female, with a mean age of 54 and mean body mass index (BMI) at enrollment of 31. Exercise regimens were monitored, not self-reported.
The majority of exercise trials were performed in the U.S. and Canada, while pharmacologic trials included the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Japan, and four multinational cohorts. The medications used by study participants were FDA approved or in the FDA approval pipeline.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affects nearly 40 percent of adult Americans. Neeland said researchers previously thought of fat as inert storage, but over the years this view has evolved and fat is now seen as an active organ.
“Some people who are obese get heart disease, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome, and others don’t,” Neeland said. “Our study suggests that a combination of approaches can help lower visceral fat and potentially prevent these diseases.”