In a perfect world, all of our bodies would be lean, mean, muscle machines. But our world isn’t perfect — sorry to break it to you — and neither are our bodies. Many of us are caught up each day wondering whether we can lose an extra few pounds from our stomachs, thighs, butts, breasts; the list can go on. In a moment of inspiration, some might think, I’m going to target this specific part of my body. Unfortunately, this way of thinking will lead to little, if any, results (at least for that specific area). But that’s not to say you don’t have a chance of losing fat in the area you want; you just have to get lucky. Here’s why.
The idea that you can work out, say, your abs, and end up losing fat in only the abdominal region is also known as “spot reduction.” Losing weight in a targeted area doesn’t work, however, because the body simply doesn’t work in that way. Within each fat cell is a fat known as triglycerides, which muscles are unable to use for energy, according to Yale Scientific. Exercise breaks down triglycerides into glycerol and free fatty acids that subsequently travel through the bloodstream to the muscles they’re providing energy for. The muscles use this energy, and then it’s released as heat, which is the reason it’s known as burning fat.
Those fats get broken down all over the body during exercise, making it virtually impossible to target a single area. If you don’t believe us, there was a 1971 study on tennis players that found both their arms had no statistically significant difference in the thickness of subcutaneous fat, which is directly under the skin, despite the fact one of their arms was used more often to play. Another 2007 study looked at subcutaneous fat loss, through MRI scans, in 104 people who trained their non-dominant arm with resistance bands. Again, fat loss was more generalized than specific to the arms being tested.
Where We Lose Weight First
Even though we’re not able to target certain areas, that doesn’t mean those areas won’t lose weight first. It really depends on various factors, most prominently whether you’re a man or woman, and your genetic profile.
When it comes to differences between men and women, men typically gain weight in their abdominal area, and it’s not only subcutaneous fat, it’s also visceral fat, which surrounds the body’s organs. While overweight men tend to be shaped like apples, overweight women tend to be shaped like pears, with more fat around their hips and thighs — a biological determination made so women’s bodies are prepared for pregnancy. This presents a problem for men and women who might wish to lose fat in the areas they have it in the most. Losing weight would mean fat in those areas stick around the longest. But if you’re a woman and want to lose weight in your stomach, you might be good; just keep exercising.
Genetics come into play because they can affect where a person loses weight first, and it really depends on where they gain it first, too. “If you tend to gain weight around your waist, you’ll likely lose weight from your midsection first as well,” Dr. Janet Brill, a nutritionist in Philadelphia, told Women’s Health magazine. For women who tend to gain weight in their breasts first, chances are they’ll lose it first after beginning an exercise program.
While it’s an obvious inclination to want to lose weight in a particular area of the body, all of us should strive to be healthy all over. Over a third of Americans are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s recommended that adults get up to two-and-a-half hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week, with at least two days dedicated to strength training as well. That physical activity can include speed walking, jogging, biking, and swimming, among other activities. And finally, let’s not forget that there’s more to becoming healthier than just exercise; a balanced diet is just as important.