The Myth of Spot Reduction

Spot reduction is the oh so tempting belief that doing specific exercises will reduce the fat over certain areas of the body. For example, doing leg lifts to reduce fat around the hips and thighs, or doing ab exercises in the hopes of flat abs or getting rid of the fat under your breasts.

Unfortunately, our bodies don't work that way. To lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you eat.  When you do that, you create a calorie deficit that causes your body to steal more energy from your cells - Hopefully the ones with all the fat in them.

 When that energy is taken, those cells get smaller and smaller, leading to what is, hopefully, a smaller body with more muscle and less fat.

Here's where things get frustrating. The body doesn't only draw energy from the cells in the area we're working.  It gets energy from the body as a whole, which means that leg lifts won't do much for removing fat from the thighs, although they can increase strength and endurance in your lower body (not a bad thing).  Just think about it, if localized fat removal were really possible, wouldn't your fingers be really skinny from all that texting and typing you do all day? Or wouldn't a tennis player have one arm much more toned than the other?

So, what's the answer?  What do we want to do if we want to lose fat from a certain area of the body?  The short answer is:  We may not be able to.  It's really up to your body - Your genes, hormones, gender, body type, body composition, diet and approximately a zillion other factors - to determine where and when the fat comes off.

  However, there are some things you can do to make the process less frustrating;

  • Do whole body, compound exercises - You'll expend more energy doing a squat than doing a bunch of leg lefts.  A squat is a complex exercise that works multiple muscles - The glutes, the hips, the thighs, the calves and even the core.  A leg lift, especially if you're lying down, only works the outer thigh of one leg. You'll burn more calories by involving the larger muscles of the body - The glutes and thighs in the lower body and the chest and back in the upper body.  Or go even further and do combination exercises like squats with an overhead press.  More ideas for compound exercises.
  • Forget about too many 'body part' exercises - Crunches are out these days, replaced by more effective exercises that work to strengthen your core:  Standing ab exercises, for example, and core exercises using balance tools like an exercise ball.  Don't waste time trying to 'tone' specific body parts.  Instead, work on your entire body and try to involve as many muscle groups as possible for each exercise.
  • Pay attention to your genetics and your body type - There is a weight loss truth that we don't like to admit, but we all know it: The first place you gain the weight is usually the last place you lose it.  Most of us have lost and gained weight enough times to know the particular order things happen.  For example, you may first notice weight gain around your belly or your hips.  When you lose weight, you may want it to come off those places, but it will usually come off somewhere you couldn't care less about - Your wrist, for example, or the smallest toe on your left foot.  Taking a look at your family members will tell you quite a bit about your own body - Does everyone tend to store excess fat around the middle?  Or maybe there's a distinct pear shape in the family?  That influences how your body loses fat and accepting that may mitigate the frustration you may feel at lack of results.
  • Embrace uncertainty - I know, this is the kind of advice that makes you want to punch me in the face, but the truth is no one can really know what your body is capable of achieving...not even you.  The only way to know how much you can change your body is to do the things you need to do to lose weightCardio, strength training, a healthy low-calorie diet, stress management, good sleep and a healthy lifestyle.  Practice those behaviors and don't worry if it takes longer than you think to make them stick.  Once you get some consistency, your body will respond and you'll learn exactly where that fat is going to come off. And, no, it probably won't be exactly where you want it to come off.
  • It's not your fault - Untangling yourself from the spot reduction myth can be tricky because it's still perpetuated in any number of ways.  Just look at any fitness or health magazine and you'll see it right on the cover:  'Get Thin Thighs With Just 5 Exercises!' or 'Get Flat Abs Now!'  Infomercials sell spot reduction in the form of ab gadgets or weight loss supplements.  Some health clubs may even sell the promise of a perfect body to sell memberships.  Once you notice it, you'll see it everywhere and you'll be too smart to fall for those false promises.

Sources:

Matthews, Jessica. "Why is the concept of spot reduction a myth?" ACE Fit | Fit Life. Sept 4, 2009. http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/60/44/why-is-the-concept-of-spot-reduction/

Vispute S, Smith JD, LeCheminant JD, et al. "The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat." J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21804427

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