If you have areas of your body you’d like to change the size or shape of, you may have looked into spot treating fat. Also known as targeted fat loss, spot reducing, and spot treating, it’s a tempting notion to be able to “fix” certain parts of our bodies—but it just isn’t possible.
To find out what spot treating fat is, why it doesn’t work, and what better alternatives are available for people looking to change certain areas of their bodies, we spoke to Alo Moves instructors Jacy Cunningham and Roxie Jones, and Dr. Tara Scott, MD, founder of Revitalize and medical director of integrative medicine at Summa Health System. Keep reading to find out what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
What Is the Concept of Spot Treating Fat?
As you may have gathered from the name, spot treating fat is a simple and straightforward concept. "It’s the idea that we can lose weight in one area of our body while maintaining no loss of weight anywhere else,” says Cunningham, who adds that “the idea of spot treating fat truly came from the human desire to perfect a part without affecting the whole.”
Where did we get the idea that it’s possible to impact only one part of our bodies with exercise, but not another? Though they didn’t invent the notion, Jones blames social media influencers for perpetuating the claim that it’s possible to reduce fat in only targeted, specific parts of our bodies, which they often do via products they sell. She says she’s most often asked by clients about how to reduce fat in areas like love handles, lower bellies, and triceps. These body parts are commonly referred to as “problem” areas. Think of the term “love handles” itself, which isn’t an actual body part name, but rather how we think of upper hips that aren’t perfectly sculpted. Cunningham thinks that it’s erroneous to even view our bodies as a collection of parts that can be broken down when, in reality, we are complete vessels. "If our back hurts, we just don’t look at the pain within the back... we are taught to explore the connected parts and to examine where the root of the issue is,” he says.
Why Isn’t Spot Treating Fat Effective?
In addition to not keeping in mind that our bodies work as a whole (not as individual parts), spot treating fat also doesn’t address any underlying causes of difficult-to-remove body fat. "Spot treating areas of fat on your body may seem to work temporarily, but is not a long-term cure,” says Scott. "Fat cells just get bigger, they don't multiply. So if you destroy fat in a certain area—for example, your tummy area—if you don't treat the underlying cause, the fat will just return.”
Spot treating fat is temporary even if you do manage to accomplish it, but there’s also the reality that when it comes to exercise, you don't have the power to choose how and where it affects your body. "With fat being the gas we use to move and navigate life, it’s highly difficult to only use a portion of our gas tank,” says Cunningham. "Your fat is a part of your skin, which is a pretty large organ," adds Jones. "Since the skin is only one large mass, fat loss needs to come from all over, not just one area.”
What Are Better Alternatives to Spot Treating Fat?
Though it’s natural to focus on our flaws, from an objective standpoint, having specific areas of fat doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with your body as it is. Our societal ideals are arbitrary, and they’re often completely unattainable for most people. As a society, we are just beginning to graze the surface of understanding our bodies in more accepting, tender, and gentle ways that are more beneficial to our emotional wellbeing.
One thing you can do to not be concerned with your specific areas of fat is to learn how to practice body neutrality. That’s the radical notion of accepting your body as it is, at any given moment, without a focus on how it needs to change. Cunningham thinks that a healthy relationship with our bodies makes for a solid foundation of a healthy life, suggesting that you “create a foundational practice of love which you offer to your body. Whether it be a love letter or a gratitude practice, it’s very important that we establish healthy ways of receiving our body and not always looking at either what’s wrong with it or how it can be improved. We are highly sensitive vessels and the thoughts and words we ascribe to our bodies are very important.”
Of course, not everyone is interested in body neutrality or focusing on offering love to our bodies, and some of us are comfortable remaining focused on losing fat in certain spots. According to Scott, discerning the cause of why you have fat in particular areas of your body but not others is the key to losing it. “I have found that hormone imbalances directly influence where the fat is deposited," she says. "For example, people assigned female at birth with estrogen dominance, or excessive estrogen not balanced by progesterone, will deposit fat primarily in their breast or hips. People with high insulin or cortisol, the stress hormone, will deposit fat in the abdominal area. People assigned male at birth who turn their testosterone into estrogen will start getting 'man boobs' and a big belly, much like a pregnant person. This is due to low testosterone relative to estrogen. People assigned female at birth with an underactive thyroid tend to deposit weight in their lower body. The best option is to identify the cause, and work to treat and balance that.”
Jones feels that nutrition should be a priority if you’re concerned with targeting fat, as it can contribute to weight loss that occurs throughout the body and, in turn, a lower amount of body fat left. She also thinks that adding muscle can help: "It's possible to work on muscle groups to enlarge those areas... having more muscle means you'll burn more calories at rest, [so] it'll be easier to keep weight off in the future with an improved metabolism through strength training.” Cunningham adds that “total body movements are wildly effective in recruiting a lot of muscle, which in turn uses a lot of energy and can assist anyone in leaning out.”
What Are the Best Exercises For Burning Fat?
If you’re looking to treat your areas of fat through exercise, your best bet is to choose workouts that burn a lot of calories. More calories burned could help with more fat being burned from your body, in all areas. Cunningham says that his favorite fat-burning exercises include burpees, which he does at least fifty of daily, all types of crawling, Turkish getups, barbell squats, mountain climbers, and jump roping.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be your healthiest, most fit self. However, treating fat in certain areas of your body just isn’t an option, because permanently losing fat in specific parts isn’t something bodies are capable of. If you have fat you want to lose from certain areas, you can look into the cause of why it’s in those areas only, modify your diet, or do more fat-burning exercises.