As summer is reaching its peak, social media newsfeeds are cluttered with pictures of fit women with rounded butts and men with ripped abs. As you look into the mirror, you realize you have been slacking this past year…So how about that new TV commercial that promises the magical solution? Surely it will make that last bit of fat disappear and solve all of your problems, right? At the very least it will melt away the excess abdominal fat, showing your perfect abs. Right?!
Well, the short answer is no, no it will not. Time to exit Wonderland and step back into the real world, where spot reduction unfortunately does not exist. A popular myth in the health and fitness community is that you can lose fat regionally, a phenomenon also called ‘spot reduction.’ An example of this would be abdominal fat loss, following abdominal exercise .
Unfortunately, the body does not work that way. To lose fat in a specific region of your body, you will need to lose body fat across your entire body (which usually turns out to be more than you think). You cannot tell your body what to do, since it controls its own fat storages. One person stores more fat on their hips, the other stores more on their abdominals.
The distribution differs from person to person . Losing that ‘stubborn fat’ is also harder to lose after you have put it on. The reason that this fat is ‘stubborn’ has to do with the rate between alpha-2 and beta-2 receptors in the fat tissue.
Alpha-2 & Beta-2 Receptors
Alpha-2 receptors are the reason for the difficult mobilization, transportation and oxidation of the free fatty acids. These receptors hinder fat loss and blood flow to the tissue. Beta-2 receptors on the other hand promote these processes. The rate of alpha-2 receptors versus beta-2 receptors in the tissue determines how easily you will be able to strip the fat in that area .
For this reason certain areas, such as the hips, are often ‘stubborn.’ Keep in mind that this will not be a real issue at first, since you will not be able to notice it until your body fat percentage is low enough. For men this would amount to roughly 10% body fat and for females this would be 16% to 18%. Until you are at that point: you should not worry about ‘stubborn body fat’.
Even when you have reached a low enough percentage for it to be an issue, simply keep losing excess body fat until these areas are in the clear as well. So even though TV commercials and ads will try to tell you differently: it is all about a negative energy balance and losing the excess body fat.
Negative Energy Balance
So now that we know that we need a negative energy balance, what is it and how do you attain it? In short, a negative energy balance is a state in which you take in less energy than you expend to perform your daily activities. This can either mean eat less calories than you burn, or burn more calories than you eat. Another term for this is a caloric deficit .
Say for instance that you have a maintenance energy balance of 2000 calories. The easiest way to create a negative energy balance would be to simply eat below that maintenance set point, so for instance 1900 calories. You could also create a negative energy balance by eating 2000 and burning extra calories through exercise. In both of the examples, you are in a negative energy balance.
So if it is that simple, why is it not advertised in newspapers and the media? Why are the headlines still saying you need to ‘avoid bad calories!’ or ‘detox your body to lose your belly fat!’. Apart from those articles not being based on scientific evidence, it is simply not something you can sell. Telling people to eat less, workout more and have patience is not sexy. Home Shopping networks will not be able to sell you their ‘revolutionary’ products if they tell you they fail do anything for you. Instead, they market the hell out of a false promise, to squeeze a few extra bucks out of you. Unfortunately, they take advantage of the average Joe.
But what about targeted exercises to induce spot reduction?
When you train a specific muscle group, the fat cells around that muscle group release into the bloodstream. The fat cells that are not near that muscle group, will release less fat at that moment. Even though this may sound like the phenomenon that is called ‘spot reduction,’ it really is not. The fact that the fat is released into the bloodstream, does not mean that your body actually burns it.
It is possible that the mobilized fat is not used for fuel, or used very sparingly and that it will be stored back into the same fat cells . At this moment, there is not enough research to exclude the possibility entirely, yet. With the data that we currently have access to, it is clear that trying to induce localized fat burning, or ‘spot reduction’ is a waste of time.
So spot reduction is a myth. Now what?
Now that you know that spot reduction isn’t actually a thing and that targeted exercise won’t help you shed the fat any faster: what is the key to losing weight and shedding that flabby fat you have been dying to get rid of? Eat less and exercise more.
Make sure you’re in a negative energy balance/caloric deficit and above all: be patient. It took time for the fat to accumulate on your body and it will take time for your body to ditch it. Unfortunately, it is not like your old high-school sweetheart.
- SS. Vispute et al., “The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat”, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2011)
- H. Wahrenberg , F. Lönnqvist, P. Arner, “Mechanisms underlying regional differences in lipolysis in human adipose tissue”, The Journal of Clinical Investigation (1989)
- P. Mauriege, J. Galitzky, M. Berlan, et al., “Heterogeneous distribution of beta and alpha-2 adrenoceptor binding sites in human fat cells from various fat deposits: functional consequences”, The European Journal of Clinical Investigation (1987)
- B. Stallknecht, F. Dela, JW Helge, et al., “Are blood flow and liposys in subcutaneous adipose tissue influence by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans?”, The American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism (2007), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16985258