By Mark Faries, PhD
Howdy, I am Dr. Mark Faries and we are here to separate lifestyle medicine fact from fiction.
Millions of dollars are spent every year on products that claim successful spot reduction of fat, but is this fact or fiction?
The theory of spot loss—also known as spot reduction or targeted fat loss—states that if we exercise a specific muscle, then the fat that sits on top of that muscle will melt away.
Spot reduction techniques and products commonly target our “trouble areas” such as the abdominals, thighs, buttocks and upper arms.
Now, I will not get into a lot of detail here, but we are designed to store fat in particular areas. For example, men tend to store more fat in the belly area and women tend to store more fat in the hips or the buttocks region.
Of course, there are individual differences in where fat is stored. For example, excess fat triggers storage in new areas, physical inactivity and poor diet contribute to excess fat, and hormones tend to change where and how much fat is stored.
As you can see in this image of human skin, that pesky fat sits under the skin but above the muscle. This fat is called subcutaneous fat. When this fat builds up, we get our trouble areas.
There is plenty of research that addresses fat and the effects of exercise, as well as the specific topic of spot reduction. Now this provides the evidence for me to offer some facts about spot reduction.
Fact 1: Fat does not magically melt into the working muscle that sits below it. So, how is fat used? Well, the fat in fat cells is broken down into smaller parts, then enters blood vessels for transport to the working muscle. However…
Fact 2: Fat loss is a total body experience and we cannot dictate where our fat is broken down. In other words, I could be working my abs, but am breaking down fat for energy from my thighs.
Fact 3: To maximize fat loss, even in trouble areas, we want to use as much muscle as possible, as often as possible along with eating healthfully.
Fact 4: The best way to target your trouble areas is not to target them at all. Think globally with your body, not locally.
Fact 5: Sometimes we have to make a decision to love ourselves, despite our flaws. We all have them and can still be healthy and happy despite them. Focus on taking good care of yourself in every way that you can.
Even though spot-losing fat has been, and will continue to be, a popular area exploited by people selling miracle exercises, products and gimmicks, we have no evidence that the theory of spot fat reduction is true.
In the end, the best way to target your trouble areas is not to target them at all. Rather, put your hard-earned money, time and effort into staying physically active and eating healthfully.
So the claim that spot fat reduction works… is fiction.
Thickness of subcutaneous fat and activity of underlying muscles. Gwinup, G., Chelvam, R., & Steinberg, T. (1971). Annals of Internal Medicine. 74(3), 408-411.
The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. Vispute, S.S., Smith, J.D., LeCheminant, J.D., & Hurley, K.S. (2011). Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(9), 2259-2564.
Effects of sit up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Katch, F.I., Clarkson, P.M., Kroll, W., McBride, T., & Wilcox, A. (1984). Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 55(3), 242-247.