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Exercises for Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality? How to lose fat where you want

Introduction

woman doing ab workout

Wondering if you can get rid of fat in specific sections of your body such as your midsection, on your thighs, arms, or elsewhere on your body? You’re not alone. Many people are under the impression that there are certain exercises you can do to “spot treat” areas you’d like to target for fat reduction–but does it work, and is it even possible?

In this era of Zoom meetings and virtual connections (in HD, no less!), many people are looking at themselves in the mirror and on their phones more than ever before. This can spur or further fuel dissatisfaction with body image. In fact, recent research shows that more people are turning to plastic surgery to change their appearance during this time–citing video calls as the reason (Mazziotta, 2021). A survey of 130 dermatologists worldwide showed that 85% of their patients cited Zoom as the reason for pursuing cosmetic surgery. Unlike social media, Zoom doesn’t have the same type of filters (although there is a “touch-up appearance” function on Zoom), which may be adding more pressure to look flawless.

In this article, I will discuss the mechanisms for fat loss from specific areas of the body, what types of exercises help with fat loss, if it is truly possible to “spot treat” areas of fat, and more.

Harnessing the Power of Food

Woman planning meals with food guide

If you are looking to lose inches around your midsection, thighs, or other areas in your body, there are three key things you need to keep in mind: prioritizing your diet, exercise, and well-being.

In terms of diet, one size definitely does not fit all. Some people respond better to high-protein, low/no carb diets like the ketogenic diet, whereas others find that vegetarian or vegan diets work well for them. Testing out a few different types of diets–in addition to paying attention to how often you’re eating and how you’re refueling your body–are all important aspects that can lead to loss of weight and fat on the body. Working with your doctor or a certified nutritionist can help you learn more about what foods you respond well to, and which foods you should avoid due to sensitivity or other issues. In general, though, experts recommend choosing high-nutrient foods that are whole, not processed, and low in sugar, fat, and salt. Remember learning about the five food groups as a child? Turns out that basic wisdom still holds true. The five food groups are vegetables, fruits, lean meats, grains, and dairy (or dairy alternatives).

Vegetables include beans and legumes, which also contain protein and fiber. You should try to incorporate as many vegetables into your day as possible. Fruits include avocado and tomatoes, lean meat include poultry and red meat, as well as tofu, nuts and seeds (Healthy Kids, 2021). Grains can include cereals, whole wheat bread, pasta and more. However, grains can also pose problems for those who are allergic or sensitive to gluten. For a visual guide of how your plate should look every day, click here.

 

Which Foods Help Us Burn Fat?

Were you aware that some foods help you burn fat and increase your metabolism? The best part is that they are natural and healthy. Food items that you may eat every day such as fish, coffee, eggs, certain teas, apple cider vinegar, chili peppers, Greek yogurt, and certain oils all can aid in the fat-burning, metabolism-boosting process (Spritzler, 2017).

For example, fish contain omega-3’s that can promote fat loss. It’s generally a good idea to integrate fish into your diet, but fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are the best choices. They all contain omega-3 fatty acids that have been studied and shown to reduce inflammation and decrease risk of heart disease. They contain high levels of protein, so they are perfect to eat after a workout. For busy nights, baking salmon in a foil packet with your choice of seasonings and vegetables makes quick work of preparing dinner. In addition, you can add sardines to salads and flatbread pizzas loaded with vegetables.

Coffee contains caffeine, which of course can help you feel energized, but did you know that drinking or eating a product that contains caffeine before you work out can help you burn fat more effectively? In a study of people who consumed caffeine one hour before a workout, they were able to burn almost twice as much fat and work out for 17% longer than a control group who did not consume caffeine (Costill, Dalsky & Fink, 1978). Albeit, the study included nine people which is quite small, but the results are promising. Other research has corroborated the finding that caffeine helps us increase our metabolic rate (Kim, Shin, Lee, Min & Yang, 2010).

Additionally, oils like MCT oil, olive oil and palm oil contain triglycerides that can increase metabolic rate and help you burn more calories throughout the day. Dairy products like full-fat Greek yogurt and eggs also contain high levels of protein that can help keep you feeling full throughout the day, reduce your desire to overeat, and boost fat-burning abilities.

 

Exercises for Overall Fat Loss

man and woman doing a rowing workout

Exercise helps you burn the calories that you obtain through eating and drinking. Making sure you are getting regular exercise means that you are prioritizing your activity level every day by walking, jogging, running, gardening, rowing, lifting weights, and more. Changing up your exercise routine means you don’t get bored when things start to feel monotonous. If you are a creature of habit and enjoy engaging in the same exercise daily (like walking), try changing up what you listen to or with whom you walk to add some variety. Music that pumps you up, music that relaxes you, meditation tracks, podcasts, audiobooks, church sermons–the list is endless. You can even try designating certain days of the week to catch up on certain things while you run or walk, such as Tuesday podcast day or Thursday audiobook day. Best of all, many if not all of these things you can listen to can be found online for free or at a low cost.

Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that every adult aim for 150 minutes of physical activity per week, and that they incorporate aerobic activity and weight-bearing activity (CDC, 2021). Aerobic activity means doing things that get your heart rate going, whereas weight-bearing activity means doing things that strengthen your muscles. During a time when many people are still working from home (or working in the office, but sitting), it’s even more important to make sure you’re sitting less and moving more. How can you get more physical activity when you’re at home? Try going for a walk during a conference call, standing up and stretching with your camera off during a Zoom meeting, and be diligent about stopping work at a reasonable hour and going for a walk or pursuing your exercise regimen. The truth is, no one will prioritize your physical health if you don’t.

 

Which Exercises Help with Fat Loss?

The general consensus is that you cannot “spot treat” areas of fat on the body. However, certain exercises help blast fat, and one way to accomplish this is by pairing cardio with strength training. Cardio helps get your heart rate up, boosts metabolism and leads to weight loss. For individuals who need to shed pounds, cardio is an integral part of that. However, the mistake many people make when trying to lose weight is to solely do cardio and not include strength training.

Strength training involves lifting weights and/or integrating bodyweight exercises. You can do this easily from the comfort of your own home using common household items, no fancy gym membership or special equipment needed.

Myra Joy Veluz, MFA, echoes the recommendation for strength training, which she says many people misconstrue with lifting extremely heavy weights.

 

“Simple exercises with 8 to 10 lb weights will help you lose fat so long as you’re consistent and eating in a calorie deficit,” Veluz added. She holds an MFA in Dance and is a holistic educator and master trainer at Pop Physique, a chain of barre fitness studios located in California and New York. “I used to think a combination of both was most effective, however now I know through experience that weight training is more effective for fat loss.”

 

Since spot treatment or targeted weight loss only in certain areas of the body is not possible, your primary goal should be to lose weight overall, then begin the process of strengthening and toning the muscles. If your goal is to lose fat in your midsection, your first approach should be to engage in cardio-related fitness activities, lose weight overall through fitness and diet, and then pay special attention to doing exercises that work your core, such as Pilates “100s,” bicycle crunches, and planks to name a few.

 

The Role of Well-Being

man and woman meditating

The inclusion of diet and exercise should come as no surprise, but adding well-being as a crucial factor may be new to some people. What do I mean by “wellness”? Aspects of your life that are within your control, such as how much sleep you get per night, how much time you spend away from your electronic devices, your stress levels, and how frequently you pursue joyful and rich moments in your life. You may be thinking that some of these aspects, such as your stress level and hours of sleep you get, may not be in your control–but they are.

Whenever we become stressed, our bodies are flooded by the stress hormone cortisol that originates in the adrenal system. It’s important to remember that cortisol is good, because it allows us to maintain our blood pressure levels, supports immune function, and the anti-inflammatory processes of the body (Better Health, 2021). However, too much cortisol can lead to weight gain, stress-eating, and high blood pressure. That is why it is imperative that people learn effective stress management techniques that are easy, accessible and can be implemented immediately without fancy equipment or tools.

One such solution is learning how to engage in relaxing deep breathing, and how to meditate. A video guide from Johns Hopkins University for how to engage in deep breathing can be found here, and a video for beginners on how to meditate can be found here.

 

Finally, it’s important to listen to your body and think about your health on a broad scale.

 

“Your health journey is life-long and constantly evolving. Your measure of success shouldn’t be tied to metrics like weight, but rather how you feel overall,” Veluz added. “Also, please know you don’t have to suffer in order to eat clean and lose weight; it can be simple, fun, and easy so long as you’re consistent.”

 

What Role does Sleep Play in Our Metabolism?

Getting too few hours of sleep per night can put you at risk for weight gain. Researchers first began noticing a potential relationship between Americans’ rising body mass index and reports of getting less hours of sleep with lower sleep quality (Newsom, 2020). Ultimately, they found a correlation between healthy body weight and getting high-quality sleep.

But what is it about not getting enough sleep or sleeping poorly that can lead to weight gain? Sleep can affect our appetite–namely, not getting enough of it can make us feel hungrier throughout the day. In one study, men who got only four hours of sleep had increased levels of ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is a hormone that promotes hunger, whereas leptin is a hormone that plays a role in the feeling of fullness.

“That feeling that you need to eat high-sugar or junk foods when you haven’t slept well can be the imbalance between these hormones caused by the lack of sleep,” said said Stephanie Romiszewski, Consultant Physiologist and Director of the Sleepyhead Clinic located in Exeter, England. “Therefore, your brain thinks you need to consume more calories, and is looking for that quick energy fix (especially when you are trying to stay awake!), which can lead to weight gain. Also, being awake for longer increases opportunities to eat.”

When you don’t get enough sleep, you may have a larger appetite and not feel full, which can lead to overeating.

“It’s complicated, but the consensus is that the less sleep we get (when we need more) does seem to be connected to glucose and blood sugar intolerance, which can lead to diabetes and insulin resistance,” Romiszewski added. “Essentially, sleep deprivation affects the way we store carbohydrates. There are many ways sleep deprivation affects physiological processes. For example, stress and cortisol levels, which can also then lead to how our bodies store fat. Therefore, the more consistent healthy sleep you get, the more regulated and balanced these processes and hormones are, the healthier your metabolism.”

However, getting adequate sleep is hard, especially when times are stressful and uncertain. Some strategies for ensuring enough zzz’s can include integrating an “evening” or “bedtime” routine that involves gradual winding down, sleeping in a dark room, turning off or silencing electronic devices, not watching TV in your bedroom, and using essential oils or other relaxation products like heating pads or pillows.

Consistency is key when it comes to working out, eating healthy, and sleeping. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule can help you get sleep that is of better quality.

“Your brain likes working according to patterns,” Romiszewski said. “Regulate your sleep, Regulate your eating. Wake up at the same time each day, go to bed when you are ‘sleepy’ tired–no matter how late that might be, it will change over time if you are following this routine. Also, don’t compensate for lack of sleep outside of your normal sleeping hours; instead, let it boost the quality of the sleep you do get.”

 

Eating at a consistent time each day can also influence your sleep quality. She recommends trying to have your meals and snacks at consistent times each day to further regulate these processes and stabilize hormones and physiological processes of the body.

 

Conclusion

Most people aspire to stay fit and healthy, which is where regular diet, exercise and sleep are critical. For some, losing fat is a primary goal and they think they can accomplish this through spot-treating or targeting specific areas of their body, which is largely a myth. Instead, focusing on a combination of activities that engage the cardiovascular system and work the muscles is the best approach. Experts agree that spot-treating fat is not possible. Instead, they recommend focusing on a more holistic approach that also involves prioritizing the number of hours you’re sleeping each night and the quality of sleep that you are getting, since not getting enough sleep can lead to a slowed metabolism and overeating.

 

Author Bio: Nicki Karimpour, PHD

Contributor and Health Advisor 

Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and almost a decade of experience in teaching health writing, public health, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California as a director of communications and clinical research. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD

 

References

Better Health (2021). “Hormones – cortisol and corticosteroids.” Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/Hormones-cortisol-and-corticosteroids

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. How much physical activity do adults need? Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm

Costill, D.L., Dalsky, G.P., & Fink, W.J. (1978). Effects of caffeine ingestion on metabolism and exercise performance. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 10(3), 155-158. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/723503/

Healthy Kids (2021). “5 food groups.” Retrieved from https://healthy-kids.com.au/food-nutrition/5-food-groups/

Kim, T.W., Shin, Y.O., Lee, J., Min, Y., & Yang, H. (2010). Effect of caffeine on the metabolic responses of lipolysis and activated sweat gland density in human during physical activity. Food Science & Biotechnology, 19, 1077-1081. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10068-010-0151-6

Newsom, R. (2020). Weight loss and sleep. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/weight-loss-and-sleep

Spritzler, F. (2017). 12 healthy foods that help you burn fat. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-fat-burning-foods#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

 

 

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