Is It Possible to Target Areas of Unwanted Fat?

Fitness Q&A
Jonathan Borba /​Pexels Is It Possible to Target Areas of Unwanted Fat?
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Question: “I’ve been on a diet and lost several pounds but still want to get rid of unwanted fat in a few areas, primarily on the back of my arms and hips. How can I target these areas?”

Targeting specific areas of the body for weight loss, commonly known as spot reducing, has been a topic of discussion in fitness circles for decades. Most people gradually gain weight as they get older, and some of that excess fat seems to congregate in certain areas of the body. In women, this tends to occur on the back and outside areas of the thighs and hips, while men tend to develop the so-​called “spare tire” and “love handles” around the midsection.

The concept of spot reducing is based on the belief that we can target specific areas of the body for fat loss. A variety of spot reducing devices and programs claiming to do this have been marketed through television informercials, health clubs and the internet. Some of the more notable examples are heat belts that claim to sweat away excess weight, fat burning machines that claim to melt away fat and roller machines that propose to break up the fat so it will disperse from the area. Suffice to say, none of these devices or methods do what they are advertised to do, and some may even be dangerous if used to excess.

Another theory that has been around for decades proposes eliminating fat in specific areas by exercising the muscles in those areas. For example, if I want to reduce the extra layer of fat overlying my abdominal muscles, why not do hundreds of sit-​ups every day? The theory may sound reasonable, but bodies do not work that way. Exercising a muscle to near exhaustion, referred to as “feeling the burn,” does not have much effect on the surrounding fat. Such exercise that targets muscles small in size or few in number is nearly insignificant in terms of energy expenditure, and energy expenditure is the key to losing extra weight.

The excess fat that accumulates in certain areas of the body is subcutaneous fat, stored by the body for use when energy supplies are limited. The only way to reduce the total amount of subcutaneous body fat is to expend more calories (energy) than we consume. This is best accomplished through whole body aerobic activity that involves many large muscle groups at the same time. When a person expends more energy than she or he consumes, fat cells will release fat to provide the needed energy and in turn become smaller. However, the body does not take into consideration your preference as to where the fat will be drawn from.

In short, there is no known technology short of liposuction that will remove fat from specific areas of the body. Spot reducing simply does not work. The situation is not hopeless, however! You can still firm up and tone the muscles in those trouble spots and gradually achieve the look you are striving for. The keys to doing so are threefold.

Regular aerobic exercise: Endurance activity that involves large muscle groups promotes fat burning and will help to lower your overall level of body fat.

A healthy, low-​fat diet: Eliminate needless calories by making wise food choices. You can consume fewer calories without reducing the variety or portions of food in your diet.

Train specific muscles in the trouble areas: Strength (resistance) training of muscles in the trouble areas will tone, shape and redefine those muscles as well as increase their size.

So, even though you can’t reduce the fat located in a specific area of the body, you can tone the muscles in that area. The ultimate solution is to strengthen and tone muscles and, at the same time, lower your total amount of body fat through regular aerobic exercise. Do so and you will begin to realize progress towards your goal.

Joseph A. Luxbacher

Dr. Joseph Luxbacher has more than three decades of experience in the fields of health, fitness, and competitive athletics. He holds a PhD in Health, Physical and Recreation Education from the University of Pittsburgh and has authored a number of books with Human Kinetics Publishing. Dr. Luxbacher conducts workshops and is a frequent speaker on fitness, exercise and weight management. He can be reached at .

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