The Myth of Spot Reduction

Remember the Thigh Master? It was that funny-looking contraption endorsed by Suzanne Somers of "Three's Company" fame. Thousands of women believed that by squeezing it between their knees, they could remove the fat in their thighs.

What about the AbFlex? To refresh your memory, that was the Star Trek plastic look alike that promised to make your love handles vanish by using it for a few minutes a day.

The Thigh Master and AbFlex have had their 15 minutes of fame and are now gathering dust in countless closets, but every year they are replaced by similar gadgets with new names. The reason there will always be a market for these types of fitness products is because many people believe that if they do exercises for a specific body part, the fat in that area will be reduced. This is what is known as spot reduction.

On the surface, spot reduction sounds logical, and this is probably why this myth has survived so long. If you want flat abs, do abdominal exercises. If you want slim arms, do arm exercises. If you want skinny thighs, work out your legs. But as many frustrated exercisers have discovered, spot reduction does not always work. Despite hundreds of tricep kickbacks, they still have fatty arms. Even if they do half an hour of crunches a day, they still have a jiggly belly.

The truth is specific localized exercises like leg lifts and ab crunches will make the muscles being exercised stronger, firmer and harder, and if you lift weights heavy enough, even bigger. But the fat in that area will not necessarily become smaller. A 1971 experiment done on tennis players showed that the athletes had approximately the same amount of fat in their dominant and non-dominant arm. The muscles in the arm they used the most were bigger and stronger but the fat was the same in both arms. If spot reduction was possible, then the dominant arm should have less fat than the non-dominant arm.

There are a few reasons spot reduction is a myth. One, spot exercises by themselves do not burn enough calories to make a dent in fat loss. So, if all you are doing to achieve your goal of a flat stomach is hundreds of crunches a day, you will get strong hard abdominal muscles but you may still have a sizable chunk of belly fat.

To see a significant change in your appearance, you have to burn a considerable number of calories (3,500 calories for one pound of fat), and spot exercises alone are not going to do it. Spot exercises should be part of a total program to reduce body fat-aerobic exercise, resistance training, a sensible diet and an active daily lifestyle.

Aerobic exercise is any kind of exercise that uses large muscles of the body in a continuous rhythmic manner like walking, running, cycling or aerobic classes. Resistance training is exercise using some kind of resistance like weights, rubber bands or body weight. Examples of body weight exercises are those done in yoga and Pilates.

The second reason spot reduction doesn't work is that even if you could burn the appropriate number of calories by doing spot exercises for your "problem" area, you have no control over where your fat will be burned.

In a 1984 study conducted at the University of Massachusetts, male participants did the equivalent of 5,000 sit-ups for 27 days. Fat was measured in the abdomen, buttocks and upper back. According to the spot reduction theory, fat should have been reduced only in the abdominal area because the buttocks and upper back are not actively involved in doing a sit-up. Researchers found that fat was reduced in all three areas.

It would be nice to lose fat only from our "problem" areas, but it doesn't work that way.

Whether we like it or not, our bodies respond to fat loss or gain in different ways depending on our gender, age and genetic make-up. In general, men usually store fat in the mid-section while women tend to store fat in their hips, buttocks and thighs, although some women have apple-shaped bodies (more fat in the trunk and arms compared to the legs) and a few men are pear-shaped (more fat in the lower abdomen and buttocks).

You will lose fat in the reverse order that you tend to gain it. This is called the "first on, last off" theory. If you are the type who gets fat in the lower abdomen or puson when you gain weight, then that is usually the last place the fat will disappear from when you lose weight.

Young people can usually lose weight and still look baby-faced while middle-aged men and women end up with gaunt haggard faces when they lose the same amount of weight.

Women of Hispanic, Mediterranean or Indian descent usually store fat in the hips and thighs while women of Asian descent tend to store fat in their arms, waist and lower abdomen.

It is usually easier for men and women to lose fat from the abdominal area than it is for women to lose fat from the hips, buttocks and thighs. Scientists believe the reason hip and thigh fat is so stubborn has something to do with the reproductive process. Estrogen multiplies fat-storing enzymes and directs fat to be stored in the lower body. Fat cells in that area contains more alpha or fat storing receptors while fat cells in the abdominal area contain more beta or fat releasing receptors.

This can be very frustrating for a pear-shaped woman because when she exercises and/or diets, she loses fat from her upper body at a faster rate than she does from her lower body. This means that even if she loses weight, her basic pear shape does not change that much.

A Syracuse University study found that apple-shaped women lost fat mostly in the chest and abdomen so they looked different after losing weight. The pear-shaped women lost fat in both their upper and lower body so they maintained their basic shape even when they became smaller. Head researcher Thomas Wadden observed that "weight loss is often not as noticeable in pear-shaped women because their hips and thighs still look heavy compared to their waists and chest." He said that pear-shaped women go from being large pears when they are overweight to being small pears when they lose weight.

In a 2000 study, female participants went through a six-month exercise program composed of military drills, running and weight-training exercises like the squat and bench press, which use a combination of muscles. The women did not do any spot exercises like bicep curls, tricep kickbacks or abdominal crunches. Researchers wanted to find out what part of the body the women would lose fat from.

The result was that the women lost an average of 5.7 pounds of fat, 2.9 pounds came from the trunk and 2.8 pounds from the arms. They lost practically no fat in the legs despite of all the running they were doing. The research team came to this conclusion: Men lose fat first from their trunks, then their arms and lastly their legs. Women lose fat first in their arms, then their trunks and then their legs.

After all this depressing news, you may be wondering if there is any hope of getting rid of your trouble areas or changing your body shape. Cheer up, it's not all doom and gloom but you have to be realistic about your expectations otherwise you will be disappointed. Here are some things to keep in mind.

To lose fat in a particular part of the body, say the abdomen or the thighs, overall body fat must be reduced. So make sure to do a comprehensive fat-reducing program that includes aerobic exercise, a resistance training program of some kind, eating properly to control unnecessary calories, and being as active as you possibly can in your daily life.

You will lose fat from all over your body but unfortunately, you won't lose it equally. You have to accept that you will lose fat faster from some parts of your body compared to the other parts. You have to be patient about getting the results you want especially if you are a pear-shaped woman because hip and thigh fat is wickedly stubborn.

You also have to accept that even if you are slim and toned, it is possible to have a small version of saddlebags, love handles, spare tire, lower belly pouch or fatty arms. No one knows why the body hangs on to these isolated pockets of fat even when it is at a normal weight and body fat percentage, but it may be a built-in survival mechanism similar to a camel's hump. To make these pockets of fat completely disappear, you usually have to lose so much weight that the rest of your body will look skeletal.

This is not a healthy thing to do at any age, but aesthetically speaking, you can get away with this when you are in your 20s since your face will probably retain some of its fat. However, don't try this if you are in your 30s and beyond because your face will show the suffering you are going through just to have a "perfect" body.

It would be wonderful if we could remove fat only from the areas where we have too much and put on fat in parts of our body that have too little. Then we would all have symmetrically shaped bodies. Unfortunately, we can't control where we lose or store our fat. I know that's a bitter pill to swallow but your body has been genetically programmed to respond that way. What can you realistically do about it?

Liposuction is a true spot reduction method that will permanently remove fat pockets but it is a method that has been known to boomerang and backfire. New pockets of fat sometimes pop up in the strangest of places. I have seen women who have developed fatty knees, ankles and pubic mounds when prior to the liposuction these areas were free from excess fat. Anyone considering this method of spot reduction should weigh the benefit with possible side-effects.

You can change the shape of your body by building up the areas that are smaller to balance out the areas that are bigger. Muscles can be "spot built" if you lift the appropriate amount of weights. So pear-shaped women can develop the muscles of their upper body to balance out their more voluptuous lower body. Apple-shaped people can develop their leg muscles so they look more symmetrical. The ease with which a person can build their muscles is also influenced to some extent by genetics and gender (women don't put on as much muscle mass as men), but it is more under your control than the spot reduction of fat is.

The bottom line is that unless further research proves otherwise, spot reduction is a myth and you cannot force your body to give up some of its lumps and bumps even if you are already slim and fit.

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