Lissette Colon is in good shape and works out regularly, but when she pinches her belly, yep, there it is—that dreaded belly fat.

“One of the first places that fat starts to accumulate is on my stomach,” Colon said. “I hate it.”

She’s not alone. Stubborn belly fat is a problem for most of us. Whether it’s love handles or a little pooch, belly fat is part of our genetic pre-disposition.

“In most body types, the belly is the primary fat storer. So, it’s gonna be the first to come and the last to go,” Personal trainer and Physical Performance Gym owner Chris Lupia said.

Sit-ups Not Enough

Contrary to what you might think, sit-ups are not the answer.

“There’s no such thing as spot reduction,” Lupia explained. “You’re going to burn all the calories it takes to do sit-ups, but you’re not necessarily going to reduce that belly fat, because you cannot spot reduce.”

The key to burning fat is cardio, and it doesn’t have to be the most intense cardio. It all depends on your fitness level. Whether it’s walking, jogging, using an elliptical or rowing machine, the most important thing is doing a consistent-paced activity.

The Cycle of Energy

How long you do your cardio workout matters.

When you do a consistent-paced activity, your body doesn’t immediately start burning fat. Lupia explained that it goes through something called the Krebs Energy Cycle, which creates a series of chemical reactions to release stored energy. Your cardio workout has three phases:

  • First 20 minutes: you burn blood sugar (as your primary energy source)
  • From 20-60 minutes: you burn body fat
  • After 60 minutes: you burn protein or muscle

Build Muscle

If you go over 60 minutes, you start burning muscle, which you don’t want to do. More muscle increases your metabolism, which helps to burn fat. So, target a cardio workout for 30 to 60 minutes, to get the maximum fat burn. (See video clip above to learn more about the energy cycle).

“The muscle mass you maintain in your body is going to increase your overall metabolic rate,” Lupia said. “So you’re going to burn more calories during the day, and you’ll have a better calorie burn, overall, which is going to help reduce your overall body fat.”

You can build muscle by using weights or your own body weight to do strength training, with exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, lunges, and squats.

Change Your Routine

You might have noticed that if you do the same exercise all the time, you start to plateau. Once again, it’s a physiological reaction.

“Your brain is an excellent survival mechanism,” Lupia said. “It will just become more and more and more efficient at doing the same task; and that task, over time, will have less of an effect on your body.”

So, another important tip: change it up! Vary your exercise routine so you don’t minimize its effectiveness.

Don’t Skip Meals

Skipping meals is not the way to lose weight or bust belly fat. You just slow down your metabolism and kick your body into starvation mode, where you conserve calories instead of burning them.

Certain foods you choose can help you to burn more calories and some might surprise you… like cheese.

“For so many years, we’ve been told that fat makes us fat and that’s quite the opposite. What makes us fat is sugar,” Dr. Linda McClintock, owner of Ageless Medicine said.

Eat Good Fats & Protein

Dr. McLintock counsels her patients to eat more good fats and protein because they stabilize blood sugar, so your metabolism doesn’t slow down and start storing fat.

“Cheese, yogurt, avocado, nuts and sunflower seeds—that’s the good kind of fat that we utilize,” Dr. McClintock said. (See video clip above to learn more about how good fats and proteins work).

Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep is another factor in helping to bust belly fat, especially after age 40. Dr. McClintock says our hormones start to change, and we often don’t sleep as well, which increases the stress hormone cortisol.

“When we make more stress hormone, it tells our body to store fat,” McClintock said.

One thing that can help is exercise, which helps us to sleep better and reduce stress.

Overall Fitness

Busting belly fat is not easy, but it can be done. Tackling those love handles and that little pooch will be most effective when you have an overall fitness plan and stick to it. Remember: cardio first, build muscle, and eat smart!

Lupia’s client Lissette Colon` says she knows there’s no magic pill.

“I’m not gonna go out and get liposuction,” she said laughing. “I just gotta keep on working out and plugging away.”