September 4, 2009
Unfounded programs and devices that purport to achieve spot reducing have become a multi-million dollar industry in a country where the health and aesthetic disadvantages of obesity are well recognized. Yet even with the assortment of options available, each of which claims to tone and tighten specific trouble areas, somehow our “spots” have gone “unreduced.”
Debunking the myth of selective reduction
It is important to understand that “spot reducing” is not possible. The concept of spot reducing is based on the flawed notion that it is possible to “burn off” fat from a specific part of the body by selectively exercising that area. However, numerous studies have refuted this claim. Exercise programs that target only cardiorespiratory exercise, or target only a portion of the body with resistance training (e.g., doing only “core” work) fail to strengthen the entire body and are limited in the amount of lean mass they can produce.
What the research has shown
Numerous scientific studies cast doubt on the validity of spot reduction—
In one study, for example, the circumferences and fat deposits in the arms of high-level tennis players were compared. The investigators proposed that if spot reduction worked, the playing arm of a tennis player should have considerably less fat than the inactive arm. This prediction, however, was not the case. Despite the fact that circumference measures in the playing arms of the athletes were greater due to more muscular development, skinfold thickness measures revealed no difference in fat deposition between the two arms.
Arguably the most compelling evidence refuting the myth of spot reduction comes from a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1980s. In this investigation, 13 male subjects participated in a vigorous abdominal exercise training program for 27 days. Each participant in the study was required to perform a total of 5,000 sit-ups over the course of the research project. Fat biopsies were obtained from the subjects' abdomens, buttocks and upper backs before and after the exercise program. Contrary to what spot-reducing proponents would have you believe, the results of the study revealed that fat decreased similarly at all three sites—not just in the abdominal region. These findings may help explain one reason why spot reducing sometimes appears to work. If the caloric expenditure is sufficient enough, it will cause fat from the entire body to be reduced, including a particular target area.
Why are trouble spots such, well…. trouble?
Although fat is lost or gained throughout the entire body, it appears that the last areas to become lean tend to be those areas where an individual tends to gain fat first. In most men (and some women), the abdominal region is the most difficult area to trim, while the hips, buttocks and thighs tend to be the trouble spots for most women (and some men).
The take-home message here is that only regular exercise training (aerobic and strength) in conjunction with a sensible diet can eliminate excess body fat. Stick with it, and before you know it you’ll be on your way to looking and feeling great!
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYTContributor
Jessica Matthews, M.S., E-RYT is assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. As a leading fitness expert, writer and educator Jessica is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including Shape and Oprah.com. She holds a B.S. in physical education teacher education from Coastal Carolina University and M.S. in physical education from Canisius College. She is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as well as an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) through Yoga Alliance and trained stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga instructor. Prior to teaching at Miramar, Jessica worked full-time ACE, serving in a number of key roles including exercise physiologist, certification director and senior health and fitness editor. Her past work also includes serving as aquatics director at Conway Medical Wellness and Fitness Center and designing health and physical education curriculum for grades K-12. Full Bio Jessica Matthews »