Ah, those dreaded saddlebags. You know, the pesky fat deposits that tend to take up residence on your outer thighs, just below your butt — and refuse to leave.
For a variety of reasons, including genetic factors, this area of the body can be frustratingly difficult to tone. So should you even try? And if so, what's the best approach?
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What Causes Saddlebags?
Unfortunately, saddlebags are par for the course for many women, especially if they gain weight. "Women tend to accumulate fat around their thighs, butts and hips during their reproductive years," explains Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Body for Life.
That actually makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: During caveman times, those extra troves of fat helped power people — many of whom were actively pregnant or nursing — through times of famine.
They're persistent, too: "A lot of people complain post-pregnancy that fat around their hips and thighs is the hardest to take off," adds Dr. Peeke. This is because your body wants to hold onto this backup source of sustenance, just in case you need to draw from it to, well, stay alive. (Thoughtful, eh?)
Is It Possible to Get Rid of Saddlebags?
So, is it possible to shed them? Sometimes. "A lot of it boils down to genetics," says Dr. Peeke. In other words, if the women in your family tree tend to be pear-shaped, it will likely be harder for you to slim your outer thighs.
But even if saddlebags are encoded into your DNA, there is a silver lining: Pear-shaped women are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who carry weight around their middle, according to a study published September 2019 in the European Heart Journal.
"Fat around the abdomen is more likely to be visceral fat, which is dangerous because it produces substances such as the stress hormone cortisol and inflammatory proteins known as cytokines that increase risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease," explains Dr. Peeke.
Read more: What Your Body Shape Says About Your Health
Saddlebags, on the other hand, are just unsightly. "It's excess fat, sure, but it won't kill you," says Dr. Peeke. "That's why God made Spanx."
Even if you're not able to totally rid yourself of these unwanted companions, there are things you can do to lessen their appearance.
How to Get Rid of Saddlebags (or at Least Give Them a Run for Their Money)
1. Put the kibosh on overeating.
If you've got saddlebags, the unfortunate truth is that any extra calories you consume are likely to head straight for your thighs. If you struggle with calorie-counting, Dr. Peeke suggests trying time-restricted feeding, also known as intermittent fasting. "Try to eat during an 8 to 12-hour window each day — for example, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and then go on kitchen lockdown after that," she says.
Indeed, a host of budding research backs up intermittent fasting's positive effect on weight management. One study, published October 2016 in the Journal of Translational Medicine, found that people who adopted this type of eating plan lost more body fat than those who ate the same amount of calories at any time of the day or night. (It's worth noting, though, that this study only included males.)
Read more: The Beginner's Guide to 16:8 Fasting for Weight Loss
2. Amp up your workout to burn fat.
Beyond eating right, the key to blasting all stubborn body fat — including saddlebags — is to incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your workout regimen two to three times a week, says Dr. Peeke. These routines involve short bursts of high-intensity exercises (like jumping jacks or burpees) followed by short periods of rest or recovery.
"These types of workouts really increase fat fuel utilization," Dr. Peeke explains.
Science backs up this idea: A meta-analysis review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, published in February 2019, found that people who incorporate HIIT into their exercise routines lose on average about 30 percent more body fat than those who don't.
3. Add strength-training to tone.
There are no specific exercises that are guaranteed to obliterate your saddlebags. But doing a basic thigh-strengthening routine three days a week can help tighten and tone the area, whittling saddlebags down, says Ashley Borden, a Hollywood-based certified personal trainer.
Here are three effective toning moves you can easily do at home:
- Seated, banded hip abduction. Sit on a bench or a chair with a resistance band around your legs, positioned just under the knees. Keep your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Without moving your feet, push your knees away from one another and out to the side (pitching your torso forward if needed), then bring them back to your starting position. Repeat 50 times.
- Single leg balance. Stand barefoot on one leg for one minute, then switch sides. Repeat three times. You can make it more challenging by either changing your base (use a balance pad or a balance beam), moving your arms or keeping your eyes closed. For an advanced version, try single-leg squats.
- Reverse lunge step-ups. Stand in front of a chair or bench with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your right leg and step backward, bending both knees to lower your body until your right knee nearly touches the floor (keep your upper body upright, and make sure your left knee stays in line with your left toes). Return to a standing position, then step up onto the chair or bench with your right leg. Return to starting position. Do 10 repetitions on the right, then 10 on the left. Repeat this cycle twice.
What if Diet and Exercise Just Aren't Working?
If, despite all your best diet and exercise efforts, you're still unhappy with your thighs, cosmetic intervention is an option, says Anthony Youn, MD, a plastic surgeon at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, and author of The Age Fix. However, be warned that most of these methods cost a pretty penny.
The three most common options are:
SculpSure: This laser therapy blasts fat by heating it up, thereby destroying fat cells (your body's lymphatic system takes over and sweeps the debris away, which you then poop out). Most treatments take about 25 minutes, with most women requiring about two, says Dr. Youn. Cost is generally anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 per treatment. A November 2016 review published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology found that the treatment reduced fat by about 11 percent.
CoolSculpting: This procedure essentially kills fat cells by freezing them off. An applicator that looks like a giant vacuum hose applies suction to your thighs, then applies cooling plates to the area. The whole procedure takes about 30 minutes and requires minimal down time. Cost ranges from $1,500 to $3,000. A June 2014 study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found that this procedure can reduce saddlebag fat by up to 25 percent.
Liposuction: If you want to shed more than a couple of inches of fat from your thighs, then you'll need liposuction, a more invasive surgical procedure in which a surgeon uses a large narrow suction tool called a cannula to suck out up to 11 pounds of fat. Unlike SculpSure or CoolSculpting, where you're back on your feet and can resume activity immediately, liposuction usually involves two to four weeks of recovery time. The average cost of liposuction is over $3,500, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
- European Heart Journal: "Association between regional body fat and cardiovascular disease risk among postmenopausal women with normal body mass index"
- Journal of Translational Medicine: "Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Is interval training the magic bullet for fat loss? A systematic review and meta-analysis comparing moderate-intensity continuous training with high-intensity interval training (HIIT)"
- Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: "'Hands-Free' Noninvasive Body Contouring Devices: Review of Effectiveness and Patient Satisfaction"
- Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology: "Cryolipolysis for noninvasive body contouring: clinical efficacy and patient satisfaction"
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons: "How much does liposuction cost?"