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Spot Reduction – Myth or Reality?

Fitness Myths
Some debates never seem to get resolved. They just seem eternal, going on since time immemorial. The evidence &research do constant battle with the myths &beliefs with no clear winner in sight. The debate about ‘Spot Reduction’ is just this type of battle.

‘I just need to lose my mommy pouch’, ‘I have perfect stats barring my sagging arms’,’ God, I pray that you do something about my love handles’, ‘The only thing that bothers me are these juggling thighs’…. Many such prayers have been left unanswered at the altar of Bro Science.   So here’s the burning question: is there any grain of truth to ‘Spot Reduction’? Let’s take a sneak peek into the realms of literature available on the same. But before that, let us familiarize ourselves with the ‘Holy Grail’ of weight loss – The Energy Balance Principle.   WHAT IS ENERGY BALANCE?   “Energy Balance” in the most simplified terms is the relationship between “energy in” (calorie intake through food) and “energy out” (calories burnt by our body to perform our daily activities). If you burn more calories than you can consume, the body burns its stored fats and thus fat reduction occurs. But, the body is not particularly selective about the area from where it burns the stored fats. And that is something that all of us should remember. So despite those million of crunches or the PR record-breaking side twists that people do in order to lose their belly fat or have enviable obliques, it is not guaranteed that they will pop up just because you have been exercising as if your life depended on it. Yes, you will definitely strengthen them but will they melt the fat covering it? The answer is NO.   We humans have a genetic blueprint that decides how and where the fat gets stored and from where it will first reduce when we embark on a weight-loss program. Men tend to generally deposit more fat around the trunk area and women tend to store fat around the thighs and buttocks. Even this is variable from individual to individual. Similarly, there is no hard and fast rule about which part of the body will lose fat first.   WHY DOES SPOT REDUCTION FAIL? Spot reduction doesn’t work because muscle tissues do not call the shots over fat tissues.You can build and strengthen a particular muscle group with ‘spot training’ but you cannot burn the fat over it. Fat does not melt or burn. Fat gets released from its body stores and is utilised by the body for energy expenditure. Unfortunately, we cannot pick and choose the part from where it will reduce as per our desire. The fat exists in the form of triglycerides and must be broken down into free fatty acids and glycerol to be consumed as an energy source by the muscle cells. This need not necessarily come from the muscle that you have rigorously trained. It can actually come from anywhere in the body. The fat burning quotient of our body is dependent on our fitness levels. So,the fitter you are, the stronger you get at your workouts, the more fat you will burn while exercising and at rest. To lose one kilogram of weight, you need to burn approximately 7700 calories. A lot of the exercises commonly associated with spot reduction do not actually burn many calories. And as per simple logic, if you are not burning enough calories, you are not going to lose any weight/ fat from any part of the body.   When you are attempting to spot reduce the thunder thighs, the love handles, the granny arms, the bulging belly, the muffin top, the spare tyre, you are targeting a smaller group of muscles with never-ending repetition of the same/similar exercise. These muscles, given how small they are, are relatively insignificant in terms of enhancing overall fitness, strength and energy expenditure—regardless of the burn that you feel while training them. There are high chances of fat loss with weight training and high-intensity/high-volume workouts as they not only burn more calories but also increase your resting metabolic rate [RMR] so that calories are burned even at rest. What Does The Research Tell Us? There were studies conducted as early as 1971 on tennis players and even as recently as 2007 where the subcutaneous fat of the trained/dominant arm and untrained/ non-dominant arm were measured and it was found that there was no significant difference between the % of reduction of the subcutaneous fat in either arm. However, all is not lost. Spot fat lipolysis is a known theory. Due to increased temperature and increased blood circulation near the exercised muscle, there is an increase in the delivery of fat burning hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine and release of myokines like IL-6. This increases the local fat oxidation in the nearby fat tissues. But these free fatty acids still have to oxidize to produce energy. Otherwise, they will be stored back in the adipose tissue. Cardiovascular exercises have been tried after strength training to achieve the aim of increasing energy expenditure and thus aid in spot reduction.   A study conducted in 2017 by Palumbo et al shows a glimmer of hope by demonstrating the greater rate of fat loss in the trained body part versus the untrained body part in a group of physically inactive, untrained women. Cardiovascular exercises were performed after strength training in both the study groups. However, since the women on whom the study was conducted were physically inactive and practically without any prior training, there is no convincing evidence that it will show similar results in a previously trained/currently training population.   THE BOTTOM LINE: You can train a particular body part through HIIT or full body workouts after doing your strength training workout planned for the day and see if that makes a difference. Maybe the spot lipolysis will kick into action, maybe not. However, as the research indicates, don’t bet your money on spot reduction.Dropping overall fat percentage holds the key to the solution you are looking for. This can be achieved with high energy expenditure, high-intensity and high-volume workouts and by creating a state of energy deficit through quantified nutrition.    Author credits : Dr. Kavita Mehta Thukral
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