If you've ever done thousands of crunches in an attempt to lose a little belly fat, you're not alone. Body insecurity is real, and lots of people face pressure to have a flatter stomach, thinner thighs or tighter triceps. But is it really possible to "target" specific body parts to lose weight?
No matter how much we want it to be true, it turns out that the idea of spot reduction -- training a specific part of your body to lose fat there -- is a myth. We all carry fat in different parts of our bodies, and while you can lose weight through careful attention to a myriad of factors, there's no quick fix. Read on for all the answers to the questions you have about fat distribution, fat loss and spot reduction.
Why do I carry fat in specific places?
We all have different body shapes -- some carry weight around their midsection, while others have an "hourglass" shape, where you carry weight in your chest and hips. Body fat distribution is determined in part by environmental factors, like alcohol intake and cigarette use, but it also has a strong genetic component.
Research suggests that body fat distribution has a heritability rate of up to 60%. For those of us that are a little shaky on our high school biology, that means that 60% of the variability in body fat distribution in a population is due to genetics. So, while diet and exercise definitely affect your body fat distribution, you may end up with a body shape similar to your family members.
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No matter how you get there, not all body fat distributions are created equal. Where you carry your weight can affect your health. For instance, the ratio between the circumference of your waist and circumference of your hips is used as an important health marker for obesity-related illnesses. The more fat you carry around your waist (being apple-shaped as opposed to pear-shaped), the higher your risk is for heart disease.
Waist-to-hip ratios of over 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men put people at substantially increased risk for obesity-related illnesses, including metabolic disease and heart disease. If you're concerned about your waist to hip ratio, contact your health care provider. And don't despair -- researchers have suggested that a diet low in processed foods can lower your ratio.
How does fat loss work?
Now that we've determined why people carry fat in different places, you may be wondering how exactly fat loss works.
When you lose weight, it means that your body is taking in fewer calories than it's burning. So, the body turns to fat reserves to make up the extra energy. When your body burns fat, it leaves your body pretty much how you'd think -- through sweat, urination and carbon dioxide when you breathe out. However, you don't get to control exactly what fat is burned on your body. You might notice you're losing inches in your stomach, when you really want to get rid of fat on your thighs.
What is spot reduction and why doesn't it work?
Spot reduction is also called targeted fat loss, and it's the idea that if you exercise a part of your body enough, you lose fat in that specific body part. For example, the idea that doing squats will reduce fat on your butt, or doing tricep dips will get rid of extra fat on your arms.
A ton of researchers have investigated over the years whether spot reduction actually works, and they've come to the general consensus that it doesn't. This is mainly for two reasons. One, exercise alone won't automatically make you lose weight -- it all depends on your energy intake being lower than your energy burned. Furthermore, like I mentioned above we can't really control which parts of our body lose weight first.
In one study, abdominal exercise alone was not shown to reduce abdominal fat. Another study suggested that it doesn't happen with upper-body resistance training either. And, we're out of luck with the legs -- a lower-body-focused training program reduced the overall body fat percentage of subjects in a third study, but not in the trained body segment. Several other researchers have come to the same conclusion -- unfortunately, spot reduction is just not a real thing.
Still determined to have a flatter stomach? Don't let the myth of spot reduction discourage you from working out at all -- a well-balanced diet, an exercise routine that includes weight training and cardio and a healthy dose of self-love will help get you where you need to be.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.