Despite years of evidence that it doesn't work, we're still trying to spot reduce. What is spot reduction? It's the idea that you can reduce fat from a specific area in the body by working the muscle groups in that area. For example, many people do crunches and other abdominal exercises in the hopes of developing a flat tummy. There is also still a thriving industry on creating gadgets and devices that promise to help you reduce fat in those trouble spots, and you'll still find classes at many gyms that seem to offer spot reduction exercises.
Unfortunately, spot reduction simply doesn't work. There is no number of sit-ups you can do to achieve a flat stomach. The reason is that working a muscle does not have an effect on the fat around the muscle - working a muscle simply strengthens that muscle. So sit-ups will strengthen your abdominal muscles, but the layer of fat on top of the muscles will be unaffected by your efforts. In order to reduce fat anywhere on the body, you must burn more calories than you consume, causing your body to burn fat for energy. Your body will then burn fat all over your body, not just in problem areas.
Research has demonstrated the futility of spot reduction exercises for decades. One of the most important of these studies was conducted in the 1980s at the University of Massachusetts. In this study, participants completed an intense abdominal exercise program including 5,000 sit-ups over a 27-day period. Before and after the 27-day program, researchers took biopsies of fat from several places on the participants' bodies: the abdomen, buttocks, and upper back. They discovered that unlike what spot reduction programs promise, the fat was reduced to a similar degree in all three sites, not just the abdominals. The participants had not done any special exercises for the buttocks or upper back.
Many people notice that they seem to lose fat more quickly in some areas of the body than others. This is normal and is genetically based, rather than based on the exercises you choose to do. Although fat is gained and lost throughout the whole body, we do tend to lose fat last in the areas where we gain fat first. That is, those of us who are fighting that belly fat (usually most men and some women) may find that we tend to gain weight in the belly first and lose weight in the belly last. Most women and some men find their primary "trouble spot" to be the buttocks area. If spot reduction actually worked, you would expect that both men and women would lose fat in the same areas when following a similar spot reduction program. But as most of us know, it doesn't seem to work that way.
The spot reduction myth is related to the myth that if you gain muscle from working out, that muscle will turn into fat if you stop training that muscle. This misconception leads to the idea that it might work in reverse: you can turn that fat back into muscle if you just start working it again. Here again, we have to remember that muscle and fat are separate tissues that operate completely independently of each other. When you stop training a muscle, it will get smaller, but it will not turn into fat.
If you feel like your body is getting softer, it's not that your muscle is turning into fat, it's that the proportion of fat to muscle in your body is changing. If you've lost muscle, the proportion (but not necessarily the quantity) of fat in your body has increased. If you are exercising less, remember that you'll need to adjust your kilojoule intake accordingly or you will gradually put on weight.
To lose the fat in the areas you want, you'll have to accept that you'll lose fat in areas you don't care as much about either. But that's ok, because losing fat tends to look good wherever it happens on your body. One of the best ways to burn fat is by doing cardiovascular exercise, complemented by weight training. However, while both of these activities will do your body a world of good regardless of your diet, in order to lose fat you will have to control your food intake. The bottom line for effective weight loss and fat loss still holds true: when you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose fat - everywhere!