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The Great Debate: Can You Spot Reduce Fat?

A new technology is reigniting the age-old controversy.

Whether you can or cannot choose where you lose fat in your body is one of the most polarizing topics in the fitness field. Anecdotal evidence has surfaced over the years suggesting that various forms of programming, supplementation and technology may in fact be able to target specific areas in the body where fat is stored. But science holds firm that the answer is a resounding no—a safe bet as there is no peer-reviewed clinical research suggesting otherwise.

“Body fat is lost in the same way that you put it on—slowly and all over,” says Dr. Justin Mager, an exercise physiologist in Mill Valley, CA, and founder of Health Incite, a holistic wellness clinic. “You can spot-reduce, but it has nothing to do with exercise and diet. It’s called liposuction.”

Besides surgical liposuction, there’s a newer, non-invasive “laser lipolysis,” which uses a laser to effectively ‘melt’ unwanted fat, which is then metabolized by the body. But neither addresses the underlying diet and exercise lifestyle issues that led to the fat build-up in the first place. Enter: red light lipolysis.

According to Rolando Garcia III, manager of the Columbus Circle location of E at Equinox, the combination of a structured workout plan and red light lipolysis treatments via a device called Pure Light seems promising for problem areas. Used in physical therapy environments for years to break up scar tissue, red light lipolysis aims an external infrared light generated by an LED (light-emitting diode) system at unwanted fat stores. “This breaks the bonds between fats, which allows you to utilize fat as fuel when you exercise,” he says. 

Intrigued, Garcia tested the system himself for 8 weeks, targeting belly fat. “I focused little on my diet and reduced my training to 3 times a week, and I lost an inch off my waist after 10 sessions. Screenings showed that all my other measurements—arms, chest, shoulders—were the same. But because of my stomach, my total body fat went from 13.3% to 12.2%.”

Next up: E clients. In the protocol Garcia has developed, participants will follow a red-light lipolysis treatment (which involves wearing a belt of 8 cell-phone-sized LED pads each for 15 minutes). They will then exercise until they’ve burned 350 calories—enough to burn up those excess fatty acids before they get stored as fat again. “No research papers and clinical trials have validated this approach yet, “ admits Garcia, “but we have to start somewhere.” 

Until there is, Dr. Mager suggests his approach: “First, I recommend that people de-stress their lives, which reduces the production of stress hormones like cortisol that cause fat to accumulate around your vital organs to protect them,” he says, “Then do strength and posture work,” which serves to properly line-up muscles and joints, often de-emphasizing fat stores. 

A safe bet for now, but there’s no harm in a little experimentation.