Many people subscribe to the idea that you can do a specific exercise for a specific body part and the fat will come off that particular area first. For instance, some people think that if they do sit-ups they will lose abdominal fat. However, that’s not the way it works.
Fat on your body belongs to all of your body, and when you start to move, you have no control over which adipocytes release fat first. When you take a brisk walk, for instance, the muscles in your legs may be burning fat that was released from an adipocyte in your gut, or from your face, from your legs or from within the leg muscle itself. And it’s usually a consistent pattern. Everyone who has ever lost and regained weight more than once can tell you that the pattern of their weight loss is almost always the same. Many people lose fat from their face first and from their hips, thighs, and buttocks last. Genetics probably determines the pattern of weight loss and, of course, we have no control over our genes. However, we can shape and tone our physiques by building muscle through exercise.
The other good news is that abdominal fat, particularly the deeper abdominal fat known as visceral fat, which is implicated in heart disease, insulin resistance, and other medical conditions, is known to be very lipolytic. What that means is that abdominal fat is very sensitive to physical activity and readily releases fat in response to movement. That’s good news because it means that a relatively small amount of activity can have a significant impact on your health.
In one study of 24 people with Type 2 diabetes who exercised for 45 minutes three times per week for 8 weeks, visceral fat and subcutaneous abdominal fat—the fat just below the skin—was reduced significantly. Moreover, insulin resistance improved by 46%. Most interesting was that the subjects lost significant amounts of abdominal fat and improved their insulin sensitivity even though they lost very little body weight.
What about cellulite?
The lumpy fat that is often called cellulite is nothing special; it’s just ordinary fat. Its appearance is caused primarily by irregular patterns of connective tissue beneath the skin. What happens is that the adipocytes, which form in compartments in the shape of little honeycombs, get pushed into the skin by the irregular connective tissue, causing the dimpling that is characteristic of cellulite. Studies have shown that people who have cellulite have different patterns of connective tissue than people who don’t, and men tend to have this irregular pattern much less often than women.
Cellulite is not directly a function of excess weight, but rather a genetic difference in the way adipose tissue and connective tissue form. In fact, cellulite occurs in people who are lean as well as in those who are overweight. Skin creams sold to reduce cellulite make the skin swell so that the appearance of the cellulite changes, but the effects are short-lived, and the creams do nothing to change the structure of the connective tissue. There is no health risk to cellulite, and although weight loss and exercise can have some effect on it, in most cases, physical activity does not significantly change its appearance.
The bottom line
The bottom line to losing weight and fat is that you must burn more calories than you consume. If you eat 2,000 calories a day and only burn 1,500, you’re going to gain weight. On the other hand, if you consume 1,500 calories and burn 2,000, you’ll be in caloric deficit by 500 calories. Since it takes 3,500 excess calories to gain a pound, you’d lose one pound per week if you produced a 500-calorie deficit each day of the week. To do that, you could reduce your calorie intake by 250 per day and increase your physical activity by 250 calories per day (for a 150-pound person, a 2.5-mile walk is all it would take). Do that each and every day of the week and you’ll drop a pound per week.