The benefits of losing belly fat go far beyond fitting in your high school jeans. Losing belly fat is important to your health.

“We can’t precisely target where we lose every pound of weight, but it’s important to reduce visceral fat,” says psychologist and registered dietitian David Creel, PhD. “By losing 5% to 10% of your body weight, you can improve blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, mobility, sexual function and more.”

1. Get your heart pumping

Aerobic exercise burns calories and helps you reduce your total body fat, including belly fat. “Aerobic exercise gives your metabolism a boost during and for a short time after exercise,” Dr. Creel explains. “Exercise may also have indirect positive benefits on weight, like better sleep and stress reduction.” Getting your heart rate up can also help build stronger bones, manage your blood pressure and improve your balance, as well as other benefits. (Wins all around!) For best results, aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise. Not sure where to start? Try these exercises to help lose belly fat (and more):

  • Take a brisk walk, jog or run.
  • Go for a bike ride.
  • Swim laps.
  • Play sports like basketball, volleyball, tennis or pickleball.
  • Remember that working out doesn’t have to just be a thing to check off your to-do list. Try to find exercise activities you enjoy. That will make you more likely to stay motivated and stick to your workout routine.

2. Add muscle

Strengthening your core with exercises like crunches and planks will do your body a world of good.Here’s what it will do, though: Strength training helps build muscle — or at least maintain muscle as you lose fat. And muscle burns calories. So, when you add strength training to your workout routine, you’re giving your body the benefit of burning more calories in between your workouts. That leads to more weight loss in your belly and beyond.Dr. Creel recommends two to three strength-training exercise sessions per week.

Here are some examples:

  • Pilates.
  • Kettlebells.
  • Functional exercises, like push-ups, squats and lunges.
  • Resistance bands.
  • Weight machines and dumbbells.

3. Cut back on added sugar

Consuming too much added sugar is associated with excess weight that’s likely to accumulate around your waist. So, cutting out sugar (or at least cutting down) can go a long way toward losing belly fat. Here’s the trick, though: Not all sugary foods are the ones you immediately think of — like candies, cookies and cakes. Of course, those are sugar bombs and should be eaten sparingly. But plenty of other foods contain high amounts of added sugars and may by flying under your radar. Sneaky sources of sugar to watch out for include things like:

  • Cereals.
  • Protein bars.
  • Barbeque sauces.
  • Pasta sauce.
  • Salad dressings.

4. Avoid high-calorie beverages

And while we’re on the topic of sugar, don’t forget what you drink. Because high-calorie beverages can impact your sugar intake and settle around your middle as belly fat.“When we drink our calories, especially with soda or juice, we don’t feel as full or satisfied compared to chewing those calories,” Dr. Creel states. “For instance, you may eat three oranges for the same number of calories as a large glass of orange juice. But the whole oranges will make you feel much fuller for longer than the OJ would.” Being mindful of cutting back on the calories and sugar in your drinks can help you lose belly fat and save room for more nutrient-dense foods.And if you think diet soda is the answer, you might reconsider. “Switching from sugar-sweetened beverages to diet is a step in the right direction for most people with excess weight,” Dr. Creel says. “But we’re still learning about the long-term effects of different low-calorie sweeteners — like the ones found in diet soda — on things like taste preferences, cravings, gut bacteria and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.” Instead, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and choosing hydrating foods like cucumbers, celery, watermelon and grapes.

5. Limit alcohol

Research shows that people who drink more than moderately may have more belly fat than social or casual drinkers. (The so-called “beer belly.”)Try cutting back on how much alcohol you consume as part of your belly-fat-weight-loss plan. After all, alcohol has negative effects across your body that go far beyond its role in belly fat.

6. Eat more fiber

Foods that contain a high amount of soluble fiber can slow down the passage of food from your stomach to your intestine by forming a gummy gel. That means they help you feel fuller for longer.“If you’re eating foods that are more fibrous, you’re typically eating fewer processed foods in general,” Dr. Creel notes. Try these high-fiber foods to fill your stomach and help lose belly fat:

  • Lentils.
  • Split peas.
  • Beans.
  • Chickpeas.
  • Almonds.
  • Apples.
  • Raspberries.
  • Blackberries.
  • Broccoli.
  • Artichoke hearts.
  • Brussels sprouts.
  • Whole-wheat pasta.

7. Opt for protein throughout the day

Protein helps keep you feeling satiated, lowers hunger hormone levels and may even help you eat less at your next meal, studies show. Protein is also important to building lean muscle, which is important to losing weight, including belly fat. Try these lean proteins as part of a healthy eating plan to shed belly fat:

  • Turkey.
  • Tofu.
  • Fish.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy products, like low-fat versions of yogurt, cheese and milk.
  • Beans.

8. Pick the proper carbs

Carbs get a bad rap. But not all carbs are bad for you. And choosing the right carbs can help you lose belly fat and keep your body healthy. Processed carbs have had the fiber stripped away and can cause your blood sugar to spike. They include things like white bread, pasta, chips and crackers.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, can fuel your body with all-important fiber and without negative effects on your blood sugar. They also contain vitamins and minerals that your body needs.

9. Curb late-night eating

Eating before bed is one of those less-than-healthy habits that a lot of us fall into. But kicking late-night snacking to the curb can be a helpful way to help lose belly fat. “Some people find it helpful to have a cutoff time for eating, especially at night,” Dr. Creel suggests. “Some people will stop eating after 6 or 7 p.m. because they know nighttime is when they overconsume and engage in mindless eating.”

10. Plan meals ahead of time

Planning ahead can make a big difference in your eating habits. Nutritious meals are important to losing belly fat and keeping your body healthy. But preparing healthy food can take some time and effort. And sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. Making meals and healthy snacks in advance sets you up for success and takes the pressure off — halting the cycle of ordering food delivery or relying on convenient, but less nutritious options.

11. Don’t skimp on sleep

A good night’s sleep is vital. It can boost your immune system, improve your mood and increase productivity, among other things. And when it comes to belly fat and weight loss, sleep is supreme. That’s because sleep affects appetite-stimulating hormones. “When we don’t sleep well or we’re sleep-deprived, it can impact hunger hormones,” Dr. Creel explains. “There’s actually a biochemical response to sleep deprivation that makes us want to eat more.” Aim for seven hours or more of sleep a night. Prioritize your ZZZs by practicing good sleep hygiene strategies, like turning off electronics an hour before bedtime and sticking to consistent sleep and wake times.

12. Work on reducing stress

Lowering your stress levels will also help you to lose belly fat. If you’re feeling stressed out, your body is likely releasing the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. And there’s a strong link between an increase in cortisol and higher amounts of visceral fat. “While cortisol levels play a role, the bigger issue can be that when we’re more stressed, we tend to be less mindful of our eating,” Dr. Creel shares. “It is common for people to turn to food for comfort or to distract themselves from stressful life circumstances.”

Depending on the severity of excess weight and your medical conditions, treatment options might include treatment options like anti-obesity medications or bariatric surgery.

But no matter what treatment path you take, developing a routine and being consistent can help keep you motivated.

“Don’t forget about the benefits of your new behaviors, even if you’re not seeing a lot of weight loss right away,” Dr. Creel encourages. “Small changes can lead to significant health benefits. But it can take time, so patience is important.”