Fit Or Fat: Nutrition and Exercise

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Can I Jiggle Or Massage My Fat Away?

Posting Date: 03/19/2001

Q: What is the difference between passive and active spot reducing. Does either work at helping me to lose fat?

A: Because fat concentrates in specific areas of the body, most people feel that those areas must be super exercised to get rid of the fat. Women are concerned about fat deposits on their hips and thighs, and men worry about fat around the midsection. So they are suckered into joining health clubs that promise to remove fat from specific areas. Or they buy all kinds of pulling, punching, and kneading devices to jiggle away the fat.

There are two favorite modes of spot reducing: passive and active. But neither mode works! In fact, no known technique, short of surgery, will remove fat from a particular place on the body.

Passive Spot Reducing
Passive spot reducers include the pulley belts and rollers we used to see in health spas. The theory is that if you beat it long enough, you're bound to break up the fat and disperse it. I can't help thinking that this is the way to prepare Swiss steak. You are not getting rid of the fat -- you're tenderizing it.

The bumpers and rollers, which have pretty much disappeared from health clubs, have been replaced by another kind of fat manipulator -- the massage therapist. Actually, massage is very beneficial after exercise; it relaxes tense muscles and stimulates the flow of lymph, but some people fool themselves into believing that it actually speeds up fat loss. The only fat loss that occurs from a massage is in the massager, not in the massagee!

Another favorite method of passive spot reducing is tying a heated belt around your midsection. When the belt is plugged in, the heat is supposed to melt away the fat. What do you think is really happening? Heat and pressure drive the water out of the tissues in that area. If you remove the belt and quickly tape measure your waist, you'll be amazed to find you've lost inches! Wait a half hour -- the tide will roll back in.

Another popular rip-off is the sweat suit, a cross between active and passive spot reducing. If you wear the sweat suit while exercising, believers contend, you'll increase the burning of fat. Let me tell you, fat boils at 360 degrees! All sweat suits really do is increase water loss and decrease your stamina. Don't try to outsmart your body chemistry by imposing artificial temperatures on it.

Active Spot Reducing
Now what about active spot reducing? In general, this involves using the muscle that is directly beneath the fat deposit. I'll have to admit I was conned into this myself. I was starting to get a little roll around my midsection, so I did what anyone would do -- sit-ups. I did 300 sit-ups a day. Within three months, my stomach muscles were like cast iron ... but with three inches of marshmallow on top of the muscles.

Women frequently complain about fatty deposits on their upper thighs. So they do leg raises and donkey kicks, or they buy pulleys that loop around the foot and over a door, attached to a weight. They work that poor muscle to death.

In both sit-ups and leg exercises, what you are essentially doing is weight lifting. And when a muscle is exercised by weight lifting, it enlarges (hypertrophies). The end result is a larger muscle with that same fat deposit sitting on top of it.

It follows that to get rid of fat, you must use your biggest, hungriest (calorie-consuming) muscles. And the largest sets of muscles in the body are in the legs and buttocks -- the very muscles used in any aerobic exercise.

You can reduce fat within your muscles (intramuscular fat) by selectively exercising one area, but this will not affect the fat deposited under the skin over those muscles (subcutaneous fat). Subcutaneous fat must be thought of as "belonging to" the whole body. Food in the refrigerator doesn't "belong" to the cook just because the cook is near the refrigerator all the time. Fat under the skin, like food in the refrigerator, is stored for general use.

One person, no matter how gluttonous, will take longer to clean out the refrigerator than a whole bunch of hungry but normal eaters. One muscle, no matter how much it is exercised, will take longer to use up the fat on top of it than will a whole bunch of exercised muscles. Get your largest muscles all going at once if you want subcutaneous fat to decrease.

Fat on your body may be driving you crazy, but I warn you not to be suckered into exercises or manipulations of that particular area. Instead of worrying about unsightly fat in one area and trying to change that area, you should get involved in whole-body aerobic exercises, and trim down all over.

Adapted from The New Fit or Fat by Covert Bailey. Copyright 1977, 1978, 1991 by Covert Bailey, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.