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What Personal Trainers Must Know About Spot Reduction and Body Fat Distribution

August 25, 2010 by NCSF 0 comments

The new look of America is an expanding one, as yearly weight gain continues to rise, averaging 0.65 lbs per year. As a result, the reduction of body fat is one of the most common goals of clients who begin a structured exercise program with a personal trainer. Oftentimes, clients have developed the perception that weight loss is an on-demand physiological function. Likely due to the misleading infomercials, fitness myths and general ignorance surrounding weight loss and fat reduction people have high expectations and lofty goals. Add in the unrealistic success of the “Biggest Loser” participants in the real world and personal trainers have a large hill to climb. One of these misconceptions revolves around the concept of spot reduction of adipose tissue. Many consumers believe spot reduction is a viable exercise adaptation following a large number of repetitions emphasizing muscular contractions of a certain area. Females performing 30 sets of triceps kickback and extension exercises or 300 abdominal crunches hoping to melt fat away are common in most fitness settings. Unfortunately, this is not how the body works – it does not comply with selective lypolysis.

Weight loss and body fat reduction are determined by the degree of caloric intake, energy nutrient dynamics, food timing and total energy expenditure - at the body’s discretion based on genetic predisposition. This means that individuals store varying quantities of fat in different areas of the body based on genetic and behavioral factors. Genetics and the endocrine system play the largest roles in determining the locations and degree of fat that is lost when the individual maintains a negative caloric balance, but age and current level of adiposity are additional variables that affect fat distribution. Total body fatness increases with age as a decline in metabolism occurs particularly after the fifth decade. In fact, it is not uncommon for many adults to double their body fatness over a lifespan.

Current level of adiposity has a potential effect on fat distribution due to hormonal changes that occur with elevated body fat stores. Basically, as the level of adiposity increases in an individual they begin to store more visceral fat (instead of additional subcutaneous or intramuscular stores). This in part is due to negative hormonal changes promoted by the increase in central and total adipose. Personal trainers should be aware that the negative hormonal changes influencing an elevated quantity of visceral fat storage are associated with an increased risk for various diseases and ailments, commonly referred to as cardio-metabolic syndrome, and systemic low-grade inflammation.

Gender plays a major role in fat distribution due to hormonal and fat cell receptor differences among males and females. Males tend to store body fat centrally, in a pattern often referred to as android obesity. This type of obesity is referenced as the “apple shape” body fat storage pattern which involves the greatest storage occurring in the midsection or abdominal area. This type of storage is associated with an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases. A silver lining to this dark cloud known as android obesity is that the adipose tissue is easier to lose as hormonal receptors on fat cells (beta receptors) in this area are more sensitive to adrenergic metabolic activity. This means fat is more readily metabolized in this area.

Females on the other hand tend to store body fat in a lower body pattern that can develop into what is referred to as gynoid obesity. This type of obesity is referenced as the “pear shape” body fat storage pattern which involves the greatest storage occurring in the gluteal-femoral area – or the hips and thighs. This type of storage is not associated with an elevated disease risk like android obesity, but hormonal receptors on fat cells in this area are not as sensitive to adrenergic metabolic activity (alpha receptors). This makes for reduced lypolytic (fat burning) activity and a much greater challenge to burn fat from the lower body regions.

Humans ancestors are the cause of the gender influenced fat storage patterns. Males had to forage for food and having an increased capability to store highly metabolic fat in and around the organs during times of feasting so they could trek long distances during periods of famine proved advantageous. At that time, the role of most females was primarily geared toward species maintenance. Females stored fat very effectively and with low metabolic activity to sustain childbearing capabilities. This explains why females need an additional 8-10% “sexual fat” above the essential ranges for male humans to remain homeostatic with regard to hormone levels and childbearing capabilities.

Considering all of these physiological factors that actually dictate fat storage and loss, a personal trainer can easily put misinformed clients on the right track. Although it is frustrating that energy stores cannot be selectively utilized with isolative muscle tissue activity, when the body engages in appropriate muscle work with a properly restricted intake of foods, fat will be burned and lean mass maintained. Genetic variations rule the location of fat usage and consequent loss and body fat tends to be reduced throughout the body in a relatively uniform manner consistent with the way it is stored. The plus side is exercise can manage weight and completely change one’s physique. The tough reality for many folks is that genetics still overrule work. This being said, personal trainers should also be well aware of gimmicks that reinforce the myth of spot reduction such as abdominal isolation machines, low frequency electrode units, sweat suit devices, and cellulite creams and provide education to help clients better understand the process and avoid frustration.


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