By: Judah Schulman  | 

The Bottom Line in Health: The Spot Reduction Myth

Have you ever listened while a friend or colleague told you about their new abdominal workout that promises to target stubborn belly fat? Have you ever seen a commercial for some piece of exercise equipment that guarantees to target specific areas of your body where flab has accumulated, and to melt away those extra pounds? Fitness companies and workout enthusiasts who make these claims are all referring to the same exercise myth known as spot reduction. Spot reduction can be understood as the belief that fat stores in specific regions of the body can be targeted for elimination by exercises that work the muscles of that same area. A simple example would be exercising the abdominal muscles in an effort to reduce weight around the midsection. It seems plausible that focusing a workout on a particular area of the body would burn the calories, stored as fat, in that section. However, this is not the case, and it is time to reveal the real effect of this endeavor.

Performing physical exercises will undoubtedly strengthen the muscles used while carrying out those movements. However, according to research, this will not create any type of significant impact on the fat stored around those muscles called into action.  A recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology concluded that spot reduction may be possible, although the results were mostly negligible. The study had male subjects perform a single-leg exercise with light weight for thirty minutes. The other leg remained at rest throughout the experiment to act as a control group. After thirty minutes, researchers measured blood flow to the subjects' fat cells in both the exercising and resting thighs, as well as the amount of lipolysis (breaking down of fat cells) from those fat cells. The results showed an increase in blood flow and lipolysis in the exercising leg in comparison to the measurements in the resting leg. The study suggested that during exercise, body fat is preferentially used from the area being trained, but at a magnitude that has little to no practical significance.

So why are so many convinced that blasting a specific body area with endless variations of exercises will trim the fat in that region? The misunderstanding in the spot reduction craze may be attributed to the firming and shaping effect of muscle hypertrophy training (exercising to increase the size of skeletal muscle). After exercise, when scar tissue is formed to repair the micro-damage that occurs as a result of exercising, the scar tissue takes up new space which can briefly compress subdermal fat against the skin. Additionally, until the skin adapts, a larger bulging muscle shape is also more easily seen through the layer of fat on top of it. This can give the illusion of fat being reduced when it has not. An example of this would be the feeling of tightness between your muscles and skin following a workout that typically lasts a day or so, until the skin stretches to accommodate for the newly developed muscle mass.

One might wonder why people continue to implement this strategy in their fitness routines, despite the research proving its ineffectiveness. While the aforementioned misunderstanding is a major part of the answer to this question, keen marketing and blind faith have also contributed to keeping it alive and prevalent.  Advertisers will lure in customers when selling an exercise-related product by hiring fitness models to show off the product and offering money-back guarantees. The reality is that the models most likely do not use the products, and if they do, it is a small component of their larger workout regimen. Furthermore, reclaiming the purchase value of the product can be a frustrating and tedious process that many will not fully complete. So fitness product companies profit, and customers see minimal results and continue to look for the next exciting piece of exercise equipment to buy as they attempt to conquer their exercise goals.

Amidst this confusion, how is one supposed to get rid of the undesirable fat around one’s body and show off a lean, toned body? The truth of the matter, which many do not want to hear and even more continue to ignore, is that fat is lost from the entire body as a result of a balanced diet and regular exercise. I repeat, muscle growth in the abdominal region does not reduce fat in that region. Instead, exercise programs that incorporate total body workouts that elevate the heart rate and place an intense demand on the respiratory system and the strength of the body’s overall  skeletal muscle will be effective in reducing fat mass, albeit across the entire body. This is contingent, of course, on balanced diet that delivers the appropriate proportions of macronutrients, at a reasonable caloric intake.

So, next time an online or magazine advertisement guarantees to trim the fat away from isolated areas, remember that your body is the one that makes the decision about where fat is reduced!

A Note on the Author: the Bottom Line In Health seeks to provide simple fitness and nutrition tips for the Yeshiva University community. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness and Nutrition Specialist, it is my goal to enhance the readers’ understanding of how to maintain a healthy standard of living while improving performance in and out of school and supporting an overall sense of well-being.