Did you know that men have breast tissue too? Although it usually isn't that apparent, a hormonal imbalance known as gynecomastia — sometimes colloquially referred to as man boobs or even moobs — can cause that tissue to swell and become more noticeable. Obesity is just one of many medical conditions and lifestyle factors that can contribute to this hormonal imbalance so, although exercise and weight loss aren't necessarily magic cures for this condition, they might help a lot.
Even if your gynecomastia is caused by medications, substance use or other medical conditions aside from obesity, reducing your overall body fat through regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you lose chest fat and thus minimize the appearance of breast tissue.
Always Consult a Doctor
Many medical conditions can cause gynecomastia. Potential causes range all the way from normal "change-of-life" shifts in your hormone levels to medication side effects, hyperthyroidism and kidney failure, so you should always consult with a physician before you embark on a treatment plan. Your physician might recommend other treatments, including surgery or medication, to reduce the appearance of male breast tissue.
It's also worth noting that although obesity is a common cause of gynecomastia, malnutrition and starvation can cause this condition as well — so starving yourself isn't the cure. But a sustainable program focused on increased exercise and a nutritious diet can lead to weight loss and, ultimately, help address the cause of obesity-induced gynecomastia.
Obesity can be a contributing factor to the hormonal shifts that cause gynecomastia; obesity can also cause pseudogynecomastia, or excess fat deposits on your chest.
Create a Calorie Deficit
If you want to lose excess body fat to reduce the appearance of gynecomastia, the answer is simple, at least on paper: You have to burn more calories than you take in. This establishes a calorie deficit that forces your body to tap into stored body fat for energy.
The path to creating a calorie deficit is twofold: First, you need to increase your activity level, which can mean going to the gym but doesn't have to; there are plenty of ways to get active without access to a gym. Second, you need to adjust your diet. That doesn't mean starving yourself. In fact, your body may need more calories to fuel all that extra physical activity, not less.
Appendix 2 in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, gives you a good place to start, with estimates of your caloric needs according to your age, sex and physical activity level. The results can be illuminating. For example, a 32-year-old man who's sedentary only needs an estimated 2,400 calories per day, while the same man living an active lifestyle needs around 3,000 calories per day.
Go for Quality, Not Quantity
As you consider your diet — meaning what you eat every day — it might be tempting to go for a diet, meaning a fad program that someone promises will help you lose weight and keep it off. The truth is that some of these programs do create fast weight loss, but it almost never lasts because the habits that create rapid weight loss usually aren't sustainable in the long term. They might even damage your metabolism, making it harder for you to lose weight in the future.
With that in mind, focus on the quality of food instead of the quantity with an emphasis on reducing your intake of added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods, while increasing your intake of vegetables and whole foods. According to a study published in a 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, these habits helped study participants lose significant amounts of weight, regardless of whether their diets were geared toward a low-fat or low-carb approach.
Physical Activity to Lose Chest Fat
The other piece of the puzzle for losing excess body fat and reducing the appearance of gynecomastia is increasing your physical activity level. While joining a boot camp or other short-term, hard-core exercise program might be one way to kick-start an exercise habit, for some people it's also a recipe to end up sore and discouraged. So instead, focus on establishing healthy lifestyle habits that you can maintain over the long term. Who knows — you might just find that you enjoy some of these new activities.
There are three main components to establishing a new fitness lifestyle: cardio workouts, strength training and flexibility training, or stretching.
Heads up! There are lots of shysters out there who would like to sell you on the idea of burning fat only from your chest or other problem areas, but this sort of spot reduction simply isn't possible. That said, as you establish a calorie deficit and start burning excess body fat from everywhere on your body, you'll naturally burn chest fat too.
Planning for Cardio Workouts
When you first start doing cardio workouts, the Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is a great place to start. It recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, or 75 minutes of weekly vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Mind you, you'll probably need more activity to lose excess body fat and thus affect the appearance of your gynecomastia or pseudogynecomastia, but this modest amount of cardiovascular activity can deliver many health benefits.
The next step is to gradually work up to at least double the basic recommendation: 300 minutes of moderate activity, or 150 minutes of vigorous activity, every week. As you get stronger — which will happen much faster than you might expect — you can continue gradually upping your exercise time or intensity until you start seeing the weight loss results you want.
Choose Your Heart-Healthy Weapon
So, what kind of cardio should you be doing? You certainly can use cardio machines in the gym, but that's just the start of your options. Other great types of cardio include swimming (where the water both supports your weight and provides resistance against every movement), walking (it's free and doesn't require any special equipment), joining an organized sports team, kayaking, inline skating, playing Frisbee and so on.
Organized fitness classes can be a great way to get your cardio in too, from Zumba and Jazzercise (yes, it's still around!) to high-intensity kickboxing or martial arts classes. Have you always wanted to learn to dance? Now's a great time. And if you pick a type of exercise that you really enjoy for its own sake, even if it's not the biggest calorie burner in the world, working out becomes its own reward instead of torture.
Building Muscle to Burn Chest Fat
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you should do at least two full-body, strength-training workouts per week. That's an ideal baseline for getting started on a healthy new habit; if you really get into strength training later on, you can start experimenting with different weight-training splits to see what works best for you.
For now, focus on working each major muscle group during those full-body workouts. Doing strength training does several great things for your body. First, it makes it easier to move around and do everyday chores. Second, it creates a firm physique that'll be revealed as excess fat melts away — so focusing on chest exercises might help you further define a masculine-looking, muscular chest, instead of glands or body fat. And third, lean muscle mass is roughly four times more metabolically active than fat, so packing on muscle is a great way to burn excess fat.
Your Strength-Training Program
There's a trick to getting an effective, full-body strength workout without spending all day in the gym: Choose compound exercises in which more than one joint and thus more than one muscle are working at a time. These exercises more closely simulate real-world movements, help you work more muscle groups in less time and save you from the hassle of working one muscle at a time just to make sure you haven't missed anything important.
Choose at least one exercise from each of the following lists for a full-body workout. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise, performing anywhere between one and three sets. Use a weight that makes it challenging, but still possible, to maintain proper form to the end of each set.
- Dumbbell or barbell bench press
- Machine chest press
- Lat pulldowns
- Dumbbell rows
- Upright row
- Back flyes/reverse flyes
- Shoulder press
- Leg press
- Bicycle/oblique crunches
- Front and side planks
Stretching for Good Health
Stretching isn't necessarily as critical for losing weight as doing cardio and building muscle, but any sort of stretching — whether you're taking yoga classes or stretching at home — delivers a number of benefits that can help you keep the other elements of your weight loss program on track. That includes reduced risk of injury, better performance, increased range of motion and even less stress.
Just after your workout, when you've already cooled down but your muscles are still warm, is an ideal time to stretch. (If you stretch independently of your workouts, do a quick warmup first.)
Aim to stretch each major muscle group, targeting your chest, back, arms, core, quads/hip flexors, hamstrings, calves and hips/glutes. Stretch to the point of mild tension, not pain, and hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Ideally, you should do each stretch a total of three to five times, but even once around is a lot better than nothing.
- Mayo Clinic: Enlarged Breasts in Men (Gynecomastia)
- NHS: What Is Gynaecomastia?
- MedicineNet: Gynecomastia Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments
- ExRX.net: Spot Reduction Myth
- Journal of the American Medical Association: Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2
- American Council on Exercise: Fit Facts: Flexible Benefits
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1
- American College of Sports Medicine: Resistance Training for Health and Fitness
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism