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The inch (or inches) you can pinch may make you cringe, but the latest research says it's the fat you can't reach that is a bigger problem. It's called visceral fat, and it grows close to organs such as your kidneys and liver, potentially increasing your risk for heart disease and diabetes. It's not yet clear why visceral fat is a hazard, but scientists believe it affects liver function, which could lead to higher levels of cholesterol in your blood.
Moreover, recent research shows that women at middle age accumulate this dangerous fat at a rapid pace. The good news is you can fight visceral fat. The weapon of choice: exercise. In fact, researchers at Duke University who looked at the amount of exercise needed for melting visceral fat found that there is a magic number for burning it off.
A group of men and women ages 40 to 65 were able to prevent accumulation of visceral fat by walking on a treadmill for an average of 11 miles a week over a period of eight months. A second group, who logged just six more miles a week -- for a total of 17 miles -- not only prevented visceral fat accumulation but melted off an average of 8 percent over the same eight-month period. A third group, who did not exercise at all, actually saw an increase in the percentage of overall visceral fat by as much as 9 percent in the same time frame. "Compared with subcutaneous fat, which lies just beneath the skin, visceral fat is quicker to respond to exercise," explains Tim Church, MD, medical director at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. If you exercise, "the numbers on the scale may not drop, but your pants size will." Fortunately, spending hours at the gym isn't the only way to melt away this fat. Forty-five to 60 minutes of physical activity most days a week should be enough, says Dr. Church. Try brisk walking -- it's easy to incorporate into your day. And to keep visceral fat from accumulating in the first place, eat more polyunsaturated fats such as fish, vegetable oils, and nuts, and less of the saturated fat found in meat, butter, milk, and cheese. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that people whose diets were rich in saturated fat, rather than polyunsaturated fat, stored excess flab around their middles. "Even if your diet doesn't change much in terms of calories, simply swapping polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat would be helpful," says senior study author Kerry Stewart, EdD, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.