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Is Poor Circulation Halting Your Ability To Lose Weight? Here’s How To Overcome It

It's not just about calories in, calories out.


Chances are, you’re familiar with the frustrating won’t-budge nature of belly rolls, jiggly thighs and love handles. Many women want to shrink these trouble spots but report little to no success, despite strict dieting and exercising. And it’s a problem that only seems to get worse with each passing birthday. But now, research has uncovered the culprit impacting many women over 40: age-related slowdowns in circulation.

Why Poor Circulation Impacts Your Ability to Lose Weight

Think of the body’s circulatory system like the pipes of your home’s plumbing. When functioning optimally, blood vessels form a network of spacious tubes that can easily pump blood where it needs to go. “But as we get older, our blood vessels tend to get smaller and weaker,” says Jamé Heskett, MD, author of The Well Path. To blame: cellular inflammation and plaque buildup, which damage blood vessels much like corrosion and a buildup of food particles damage the pipes under your sink. (That’s why varicose veins form.) “Effectively, the diameter of blood vessels is going to shrink, and when that happens, we have less blood flow,” explains Dr. Heskett. Our strong network of large pipes becomes a skinny plumbing system full of clogs.

Why that’s a problem for weight-loss efforts: Weakened circulation may prevent the body from burning fat. As Dr. Heskett explains, when the body senses a need for energy (say, to fuel a stroll around the block), fat cells release fatty acids. These fatty acids then have to be swept up into the bloodstream and ferried to the muscles and organs that need to be fueled up. “But when circulation is weak, fatty acids will just sit in the space between the cells and the surrounding blood vessels,” says Dr. Heskett. “With nowhere to go, those fatty acids eventually end up getting sucked right back into fat cells. And in the meantime, the body didn’t get the energy it needs, so it takes energy from other places — it will break down your muscles.” This gives the body a hit of energy, but it also pulls us deeper into a fat trap, since loss of calorie-burning, lean muscle mass leads to metabolic slowdowns.

Complicating matters for women: The areas where we tend to store fat — our bellies, hips, and thighs — don’t have a robust network of blood vessels to begin with, so it’s naturally harder for the body to access fat in these areas so it can be burned for fuel. And as blood vessels shrink with age, these spots may become almost impossible to burn off.

The Exercises That May Help You Overcome Poor Circulation

Fortunately, it is possible to strengthen circulation and potentially speed slimming. The key? Walking the right way. “To lose inches, you have to liberate the contents of the fat cell and sweep the fatty acids away into the circulation to be used by the body,” says Dr. Heskett. And you can do that by interspersing an easy, moderate-paced stroll (which stimulates blood flow and spurs the release of fatty acids) with a few short bursts of high-intensity movement. The brief periods of amped-up effort increase the release of fatty acids, plus get circulation pumping vigorously so those fatty acids are whisked into the bloodstream. Changing up the pace also strengthens blood vessels and enhances their ability to expand and contract, leading to a healthier circulatory system, so the body can easily access stubborn fat stores long after the stroll is over.

Once circulation is powered up, you may find it easier to lose weight. Indeed, one study found that women who completed three, 30-minute, fast-paced walks and two slower walks per week lost more body fat than women who walked five days per week at a slow pace. And since blood vessels also ferry invigorating oxygen and hormones to organs, improving circulation delivers a host of health perks.

Note: Poor circulation could be a sign of disease, such as diabetes, which may make it hard to follow an exercise regimen. Consult with your doctor before trying these forms of exercise.

How To Do a Circulation-Boosting Walk

Circulation-boosting walks may help you melt fat from stubborn trouble spots — and it’s surprisingly easy to do. “You don’t have to exert yourself like a maniac,” promises Jamé Heskett, MD. Instead, simply intersperse moderate-paced strolls with a few short bursts of high-intensity activity. “That can be anything that kicks your heart rate up a notch,” says Dr. Heskett. “You could climb one flight of stairs, do a couple of jumping jacks, or break out a jump rope.”

To get started, stroll at a relaxed pace for 10 minutes. Then alternate between walking for four minutes at an intensity of five out of 10 (where you can breathe normally and easily hold a conversation) and power walking, jogging, or jumping for 30 seconds at an intensity of eight or nine (where you are slightly out of breath and sweating). Do four reps, or 18 minutes, then cool down at an easy pace for five minutes. Repeat three to four times per week. And for potentially faster slimming, incorporate the following circulation-boosting techniques before, during, and after your walk:

Down a glass of H20 first.

“Most people wait to drink water while they’re exercising, but if you’re dehydrated, your circulation is going to be less abundant. Picture a trickle through a drainpipe versus an over-flowing gutter,” says Dr. Heskett. She explains that blood is 90 percent water, and without sufficient hydration, blood volume decreases. This forces the heart to work harder to circulate blood through the body. And you don’t have to be seriously dehydrated to feel the negative effects: Research shows that even a mild decrease in the body’s normal water volume can lead to fatigue and decreased performance during exercise. To avoid this: “Drink 8 ounces of fluid 15 minutes before your walk,” advises Dr. Heskett. “This ensures your body has the fluid to function optimally.”

Practice birthday candle breaths.

“The last thing you want to do during exercise is hold your breath,” says Dr. Heskett. That’s because deep inhalations work to oxygenate your blood, plus act as a pump to stimulate the movement of blood through the circulatory system. To set yourself up for breathing success, Dr. Heskett recommends practicing a few deep breaths before embarking on your walk: Take a deep breath in through your nose, then imagine you’re blowing out candles as you exhale, pursing your lips and contracting your belly to get every last breath of air out. Repeat five to 10 times. This will strengthen the diaphragm to allow you to take deeper breaths as you stroll, plus it will engage the deep-tissue transverse abdominal muscles to help tone the lower belly.

Take a hot-cold shower.

My favorite thing to do when I finish a workout is to take a hot-cold shower,” shares Dr. Heskett. “Hot water opens up the blood vessels and cold water constricts them, so you’re exercising the blood vessels. The state of fluctuation really gives the body a sense of pumping in both directions, making it incredible for your circulation.” To get the benefits, turn the water as warm as you can tolerate, then switch it to as cold as you can handle.

Dry-brush away toxins.

After your stroll or before you take a shower, Dr. Heskett suggests dry-brushing your skin with a soft-bristled body brush (like Wholesome Beauty Dry Skin Body Brush — Buy from Amazon, $5.99). “Dry brushing brings blood flow throughout the body and sweeps away toxins that get generated throughout the day,” she explains. “Plus, it stimulates the lymphatic system, exfoliates, improves skin tone, and aids kidney and digestive function.” To do: Make short, slow strokes with the brush up your body, from your feet to your shoulders. To get the maximum benefits, drink a large glass of water right after brushing to help the body flush the toxins that have been dislodged.

Switch to compression socks.

Trading your regular socks or sweats for compression gear during exercise can improve circulation, says Dr. Heskett. Though the tight-fitting fabric won’t necessarily lead to greater weight loss, it creates pressure in blood vessels that boosts the flow of blood. A brand to try: CompressionZ Compression Pants (Buy from Amazon, sizes small through 6 XL, $34.99).

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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