Do You Want to Spot-Reduce Fat?

This week I received an email from one of my listeners and since this is actually a fairly common question, I thought it would be a great opportunity to address it on the show.

The email reads as follows:

“Yes, I know diet is the main thing, but I’m looking for some fun new exercises that will help my love handles and belly. I already do all of the regular things, but I need to mix it up. Any thoughts on the efficacy of weighted hula hoops (or anything else that’s different and helps those areas?”

Ok, so there are a few things to dig into here, so sit back, buckle up, and get ready for some FACTS.

The first is that I don’t necessarily believe a “diet” is the best solution. A quick search in the Macmillan Dictionary He tells me one of the meanings of diet and certainly the one that applies here is “a limited amount of food that someone eats because they are trying to become thinner.” As I have discussed several times here on the show, fitness is the absence of disease in an organism. Whilst it’s certainly the case that being overweight can bring a host of health issues, we can say the opposite is also true. Cutting whole food groups, under consumption of nutrients, and being underweight leads to physical and mental health problems. So I want to distance myself from the “diet” idea.

However, it is also true that humans are subject to the first law of thermodynamics—your energy is always conserved. Basically, your body is like a bank. If you eat more calories than you burn, the energy will be conserved in the form of fat. So, burning more than we consume will lead to usage of the preserved energy. However, there are perhaps healthier ways of doing this than a diet.

First, we can look at increasing our NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is basically burning more calories during the day outside of dedicated exercise times. We can do this by increasing lean muscle mass, but we can also increase NEAT by doing things like parking further from the front door of the office or grocery store and getting in extra steps.

Second, we can look at basic lifestyle guidelines such as increasing or improving sleep quality, decreasing stress levels, getting some time outdoors in the sunlight, and even spending more time chewing and appreciating our food.

Listen to that Nutrition Diva episode here:

The next part of the email is that the listener wants to reduce their belly and love handles. Now, the bad news is that you cannot pick up a part of your body you want to lose fat on. Sadly, it’s a process that affects the whole body and often we find that the areas we gain first are where we lose last. So, if you’re looking for exercises for love handles specifically, well, we have to be patient and respect the same process for fat loss as we do for muscle gain. It’s slow, it’s progressive, and it can be a bit boring!

This brings me to the point where our listener says, “…I need to mix it up.” I’ve spoken on the show before about the SAID principle of specific adaptations.

Like in this episode on how to combat aging through fitness:

Your body responds to “random” exercises the same way in fat loss as it does in accumulation of muscle, aerobic capacity, and skill development. That is to say, it doesn’t. We don’t NEED to mix it up, we prefer to mix it up because entertainment (or as I call it jokingly, enterTRAINment) is a factor for many. The reality is doing the same things with more volume, more intensity, and more complexity week on week will be more impactful.

And finally, the weighted hula hoop. Efficacy? Well, if it addresses what I just said, that you do more of it this week than last, do it harder than last, heavier than last, or it has more complexity than last, then it will have value and use. But the idea that doing the hula hoop will help love handles is maybe not a useful one. As we know, the body responds to external stress by making an adaptation. Let’s take bicep curls. If you have a high body fat percentage and want to reduce your arm fat specifically, one may choose bicep curls to train the fat away from the arms. But in reality, the bicep will respond to training by increasing in size. You won’t have burned off any localized fat and, in fact, now your arms will look BIGGER.

Thanks so much for writing into the show and giving me the opportunity to address a common question! If anyone has any questions, you can do the same by….

So, to summarize, we have learned that any exercise may be a great way to increase overall activity and NEAT. However, that doesn’t mean that you can target fat loss in a specific area by doing exercises for love handles or other stubborn areasbut if you follow the principles laid out here and discussed on the show each week, you should see steady progress toward any training goal you may have.

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