Fitness Q&A by Richard Weil
Unfortunately, you cannot spot reduce or target a specific area of your body for fat reduction. It would be nice if you could get on the elliptical machine and say, "Okay, burn fat from my thighs today" or "Okay, sit-ups, get rid of my love handles," but that's not how it works. Instead, fat is stored in special fat cells called adipocytes, which are located all over your body. The trick to reducing fat and losing weight is to stimulate adipocytes to release their stored fat and have the muscles burn it up. Exercise will do that for you, and here's how it works.
When you start to exercise, hormones like norepinephrine (adrenaline) are released into the bloodstream and transported via the circulation to adipocytes all over the body. When these hormones reach the adipocytes, they trigger special chemical messengers that instruct the adipocytes to release fat, and just like a balloon that shrinks when you let air out of it, adipocytes shrink when they release fat. The released fat then circulates in the blood to the muscles which burn it up for fuel (just like an automobile engine burns gasoline for fuel). You lose weight when adipocytes release their stored fat and shrink, and muscles burn up the fat.
As for spot reducing, you can't do it because you have no control over which adipocytes release fat when you start to exercise. We all have a consistent pattern of weight loss and weight gain (you may lose fat in your face first and your love handles last), but you can't control the pattern. The good news is that all aerobic exercise stimulates adipocytes to give up their fat (including the ones in your love handles), and resistance exercises like weightlifting and abdominal exercises will tone up muscles under excess fat. In fact, you could tighten up your waist and loosen your slacks with abdominal exercises even if you didn't lose your love handles.
To maximize the health and fitness benefits of exercise, I recommend that you build up to three to five times per week of aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a session and perform resistance exercise two to three times per week. All abdominal exercises on the floor will help, and I also often suggest side bends, trunk rotations, and full-body exercises like squats to help tone up the waist. As always, if you haven't exercised in a while, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Good luck. Thank you for your question.
Last Editorial Review: 12/27/2006