Modern Mythology

Modern Mythology: Spot Reduction (and Pink Dumbbells)

Modern Mythology is a Teen Skepchick feature in which we try to cut through the woo so you can make informed decisions. If you have any questions, contact us here.

About a year ago, I ordered some things online and forgot to uncheck the box that said “Receive 12 issues of Shape Magazine for free!” They bombarded my college mailbox with heinous tips about fitness and weight loss. (As my friend summarized their weight loss advice in every issue: “Don’t eat! And later, don’t eat again.”)

The worst part about Shape Magazine is the mostly ineffective fitness advice. And the dumbbells, the pink 3-5 pound dumbbells–why insult us?

Many women’s magazines are culpable of the same mistakes–but when it comes to a magazine that’s supposed to be all about fitness, it bothers me even more. These magazines are fans of the terms like “spot reduction” and “toning.” The idea is that you can target “problem areas” (another term that makes me bristle) by performing a specific exercise which targets the underlying muscle. And, since women don’t want to bulk up like male bodybuilders, these exercises are always performed at low intensity with high repetition.

That is, they are recommending that women do an easy thing 20 times so that they will lose fat in one area of their body.

Does this really work?

Several studies have shown that targeted muscle activation does not result in greater fat loss from that area of the body (for example, Gwinup et al. 1971, Krotkiewski et al. 1979, Katch et al. 1984). Exercise physiologists have found that weight loss, whether it occurs by aerobic exercise or by strength training, occurs throughout the whole body. However, some fat deposits will be burned before others.

The pattern of weight loss is largely genetic and simply depends on the balance of calories–that is, calories consumed minus calories burned through various types of exercise (Redman et al. 2007, Trapp et al. 2008). However, it’s been shown that fat deposits in your belly seem to be particularly stubborn, which is why “ab-toning” exercises just don’t work.

So, it might appear that dumbbell curls results in weight loss in your arms. But it is much easier to lose fat in your arms first. That’s simply how the pattern of weight loss happens. When you look at people who are doing 70 to 300 sit-ups every day, such as the subjects in Katch et al. 1984, the fat on their belly does not simply go away. Sorry, Shape Magazine, nobody is going to get a bikini-toned stomach using your workout.

Instead of reading these fitness magazines, there is plenty of common-sense advice about exercise out there that applies to both teens and adults. Do something that you enjoy–this makes exercising much less painful and loaded with worries about body image, or eating. (Group fitness classes are great! And so is weightlifting–it makes you strong.) I know from experience that ignoring these myths and focusing on your own mental health will help you maintain your physical health. Next time you encounter a suspicious claim about fitness–and there are many–just remember that leading a healthy life has little to do with the advice in magazines.


Works Cited

Gwinup, G., Chelvam, R., Steinberg, T. 1971. Thickness of subcutaneous fat and activity of underlying muscles. Annals of Internal Medicine 74: 408-411.

Katch, F.I., Clarkson, P.M., Kroll, W., McBride, T., Wilcox, A. 1984. Effects of sit-up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 55: 242.

Krotkiewski, M., Aniansson, A., Grimby, G., Bjorntorp, P., Sjostrom, L. 1979. The effect of unilateral isokinetic strength training on local adipose and muscle tissue morphology, thickness, and enzymes. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology 42: 271-281.

Redman, L.M., Heilbronn, L.K., Martin, C.K., Alfonso, A., Smith, S.R., Ravussin, E. 2007. Effect of calorie restriction with or without exercise on body composition and fat distribution. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism 92: 865-872.

Trapp, E.G., Chisolm, D.J., Freund, J., Boutcher, S.H. 2008. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International Journal of Obesity 32: 684-691.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!

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