By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Part IV of a six-part series. Check back next week for Part V: Back
You’re walking along with your best friend at the mall and she stops in front of The Gap and says “Hey, let’s go jeans shopping!” You inwardly grimace, start to panic, break out in a sweat, and then, thinking fast, whip out your wristwatch and pointing at it quickly reply, “Wow, hey! Time sure flies! Let’s bag the jeans and make it over to the shoe sale before everything’s gone.” She agrees and you both zip past the denim and high tail it to the shoe store. You dodged the bullet again using the old “distract her with the shoe” trick. But, doesn’t it get old? Every time there’s an opportunity to snag a cool pair of jeans, you get PTSD from the last time you tried that. In a nanosecond you conjure up the nightmare dressing room scenario— desperately wrestling with the waist band trying to crow bar your thighs into the darned thing, so sick and tired of your saddlebags.
Sound familiar? If you’re a woman, you’ve got lots of company. This is not typically a guy issue. Estrogen receptors are located all over women’s fat tissue, integrated throughout the hip, thigh and buttock. When you are appropriately nourished, those receptors make sure to lay down some fat in your hip-thigh-buttock region for a very important reason — breastfeeding. Yep, that fat serves a real purpose as the Exxon station for caloric fuel to feed your infant. This is why most women notice that as they breastfeed, their lower body pregnancy weight gain begins to reverse.
Estrogen helps gives us our feminine curves, and this fat deposition starts with the onset of your menses, where you typically morph from a toothpick tomboy to a curvy teen. There’s a wide (pun intended) spectrum of sizes based upon your level of physical activity, age, estrogen status, ethnicity and family genetics. As well, some women’s fat storage systems are not as active as others and these lucky ladies tend to have less fat stored in that region, resulting in skinny legs. Look at your own family line for a reality check. Check out your family’s general body shapes and see who you look like. If you’ve always had greater fat deposition in your thighs and legs, your goal is to optimize your nutrition and physical activity to keep them as toned and fit as possible. Just remember, genetics may load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. So, you can indeed make the absolute best out of the deck of cards you’ve been given.
Having curves is natural and wonderful. But not if there’s so much excess fat that your thighs reside in another state. What can you do about saddlebag trauma and drama? Plenty! Broken record time — this is not just about exercise. So, please remember that you need to be mindful of every mouthful to reduce any excess body fat. Quality, quantity and frequency of your eating are key. In my book Body for Life for Women, I walk you through smart, science-based eating and exercise geared to women’s unique hormonal milestones and challenges. Here, I’m going to show you three simple exercises which, when combined with your cardio (ideally five days per week and incorporating high-intensity interval training) and good nutrition will help turn your dressing room drama into a dream come true.
As I always note, if you have any physical disabilities or medical condition, please check with your medical team before starting any new exercise program. And try to rest for 30-45 seconds between sets.
1) Walking Dumbbell Lunge: This is another great multitasking exercise. You use multiple joints while you’re strengthening core, quads, hamstrings and glutes. The extra bonus is you’re also testing your balance and working your stability as you work off one bent knee’d leg while the other is placed in front of you. And if you’re using hand weights, you’ll be picking up some strength as well.
Grab a hand weight (beginners 3-5 pounds, advanced higher weight) and relax your arms by your side. Stand and position your feet about one foot length apart. Always engage your core by contracting your ab muscles, while your shoulder blades are pulling down for optimal stability. You’re about to do a forward lunge. Step 2-3 feet forward with your right foot and as you do so, transfer your weight to your front foot, but be careful never to lean forward. Bend both of your knees and lower your hips toward the floor. As you bend your forward knee, look down and make sure your knee never goes out past your foot. If you do you’re creating too much stress on the knee. It’s OK if your back foot heel comes up as that’s the correct form. You’ll then be balancing off your back foot toes. Now, push off through your front foot to bring your feet back to start position. You’ve taken a step in your walking lunge. Now repeat the same exercise using the left foot going forward. Your goal is to complete three sets of 10 repetitions.
2) Side Step Squats: This exercise adds some fun and challenge to slimming your saddlebags. The squat in general is a terrific way to strengthen your glutes and thighs. Taking it to the side hits your outer thighs (you know, the body part that refuses to wedge into your jeans) and doing a side step squat is more robust and dynamic then just standing there and squatting. I add the elastic tubing with handles because it’s fun and easy to perform. You can also do this exercise with hand weights.
Take your elastic tubing handles in each hand and step on the elastic so it’s under your feet. Now, holding onto those handles, take a wide step to the right, engaging the core and squeezing your glutes. You’ll notice that as you step, the elastic tension increases. This resistance is helping to strengthen your muscles as you move sideways. After you step, lower yourself into a squat, keeping your knees behind your toes (look down and check) and maintaining that tension on the elastic. Gradually step your left foot to meet your right and you’re back into start position. Keep stepping in the same direction for 10 repetitions or more. Then switch sides and repeat.
3) Lying Leg Abduction: Hey, here’s lookin’ at your legs! The lying leg abduction feels good to do and works your hips and outer thighs in an easy and accessible way. The royal win win is you’ll gain tone and core strength as you also work your legs.
Lay down on your floor mat. Flip to your side. This works well in front of a mirror so you can observe your form. Your head can remain upright or resting on your outstretched arm. Your bottom leg is balanced with one arm outstretched above you on the floor and the other bent at the elbow, lying on the floor to further support you. Your bottom leg is ideally straight, but if that’s a challenge, then add some bend to it.
Engage your core, and lift your top leg upward and away from your mid-line. You can lift to a 45 degree angle or less if that’s all you can do. The key is that you’re lifting and working that hip and outer thigh muscle. Count up to 5 and gently lower back to start position. Do three sets of these leg abductions on each side.
Keep practicing these exercises throughout the week. With consistency, you can soon say: “So long saddlebags”!