One out of every two Americans follows a calorie-restricted diet plan in an attempt to lose weight. As a nation, we will spend almost $40 billion on diet programs this year. A large percentage of those who are trying to lose weight also are attempting to improve a physical appearance problem typically referred to as cellulite.As you might be aware, there are dozens of cellulite-reducing products on the market, including pills, powders, drinks, wraps, creams and mechanical devices, to name a few. Many of these products gross more than $50 million a year. Given that a lot of women are paying a lot of money for products that might have minimal effect on their cellulite situation, let’s take a closer look at the physical phenomenon known as cellulite.
What is cellulite?First, there is no such tissue as cellulite. Generally speaking, cellulite is the name given to excess fat that is no longer evenly distributed under the skin, but is clumped together in uneven bundles that present a rippled and dimpled appearance. Although cellulite is basically fat, it is poorly packaged fat that presents unattractive body contours known variously as the oatmeal, cottage cheese or mashed potato look.
What causes cellulite?Basically, we all experience undesirable changes in our body composition as we age, most notably less muscle and more fat. In fact, the average inactive woman loses about 5 pounds of muscle and adds about 15 pounds of fat every decade of adult life. This represents only a 10-pound per decade change in body weight, but is actually a 20-pound per decade change in body composition.At first, the progressive reduction in muscle tissue goes unnoticed because of the additional fat and greater body weight. Also, until significant muscle mass is lost, our fat stores remain fairly evenly layered between the underlying muscle and the overlying skin. However, as time goes on we lose more of the muscle that gives us a solid, firm and toned physical appearance, and we replace it with increasing amounts of fat.Because fat is exceptionally soft tissue, it doesn’t keep our skin taut as muscle does. Consequently, when there is too little muscle to maintain our desirable shape, the skin tends to take on the lumpy look of the irregular fat deposits beneath it.
What eliminates cellulite?The first step in solving the cellulite problem is to reduce the underlying fat stores, which can be accomplished through dieting, aerobic activity or both.Unfortunately, as many people have discovered, simply decreasing the fat deposits does not necessarily improve the cellulite appearance. The skin might still stay soft and saggy, and look even more dimpled because there is less substantial muscle tissue to give it shape.In addition to reducing excess fat, it’s essential to replace lost muscle tissue through strength exercise. Only when firm and fit muscle is developed will you look taut and toned. Without question, adding muscle is just as important as losing fat to rectify the rippled look and reshape your body.What is the cellulite solution?My recommendation is a relatively brief but fairly comprehensive program of strength and endurance exercise that works to concurrently reduce body fat and replace muscle tissue. The basic program requires about 40 minutes of physical activity (combined strength and endurance exercise), two to three days a week.
Research studyA few years ago, 115 women participated in our cellulite reduction research study. Each participant performed 20 minutes of strength training and 20 minutes of aerobic activity, two or three days a week, for a period of eight weeks. After two months of training, the women (on average) lost almost five pounds of fat, gained more than a pound of muscle, and reduced their hip size by more than 1 inch. Without any change in their diet they attained major improvements in their body composition and physical appearance.About 25 percent of the participants reported less cellulite, and about 75 percent of the women reported a lot less cellulite. This was confirmed by ultrasound measurements of their thighs, which showed a significant reduction in the fat layer and a significant increase in the muscle layer. In addition, all of the women reported the exercise program was a positive and productive experience that improved their muscle strength, cardiovascular endurance and self-confidence.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science and directs the fitness research classes at Quincy College. He has written 25 books on physical fitness.