Love Handles: What Causes Them, and How Do You Get Rid of Them?

Medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, MS, NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS on December 14, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney on December 14, 2017

Overview

“Love handles” are areas of skin that extend outward from the hips. When combined with tight clothing, love handles can become more pronounced, but they aren’t caused by tight clothes alone. They indicate excess fat accumulation around the hips and abdominal area.

Learn more about the causes of love handles and how you can treat them.

What causes love handles?

The underlying cause of love handles is fat retention.

Generally speaking, fat cells accumulate when your body takes in too many calories or you don’t burn as many calories as you’re consuming. Over time, these fat cells can become noticeable as they accumulate in certain areas, such as around your waist and hips.

Fat can accumulate anywhere in the body, but there are certain factors that increase the likelihood for retaining fat in the hip, lower back, and abdominal areas. Factors that contribute to love handle formation include:

  • hormones, especially too much cortisol
  • age (belly fat accumulation is particularly common as you get older)
  • lack of physical activity
  • diet high in fats, sugars, and high-calorie foods
  • sleep deprivation
  • undiagnosed or untreated conditions that slow down your metabolism (hypothyroidism — or underactive thyroid — for example, makes it difficult to burn off extra calories)

Do love handles pose risks?

Love handles aren’t dangerous, but they may indicate underlying risk factors for chronic illnesses. These include:

Preventing love handles may help boost your overall health outlook.

Exercises

Just a quick search on the Internet reveals targeted exercises for specific areas of the body, including love handles. But fat reduction can’t be achieved with spot exercises alone. While strengthening and resistance activities can help with muscle tone and flexibility, they don’t shrink fat cells.

Try combining cardiovascular exercises with weight lifting and targeted movements for optimal results. If you’re trying to lose weight and overall body fat, you may need up to five hours of moderate exercise per week.

It’s also important to maintain a healthy diet and avoid taking in more calories than you’re burning. For gradual fat loss and weight maintenance, incorporate aerobic activities, such as walking, bike riding, and swimming.

Even if you can’t fit in a full-length workout in every single day, you’ll reap the benefits of simply being more active.

Here are just some of the exercises that target the back, abs, and hip regions.

Side planks

There are several modifications for side planks that can make the move more or less challenging. To perform the basic side plank:

  1. Start by lying on your side. Prop yourself up on one arm: your elbow should be in line with your shoulder; your forearm should be flat against the ground, at a right angle to your body.
  2. Stack your legs, one on top of the other, so that your body forms a straight line from head to hip. With your knee still touching the ground, raise your hips.
  3. Squeeze your glutes (gluteus muscles) and hold the move for 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. While doing the move, focus on keeping your abs tight to help support your body.
  5. Switch sides and repeat.

For a more challenging move, try raising your knees off of the ground so that the only parts of your body touching the ground are the side of your foot and your forearm.

You can also incorporate hip dips. To do this, while in your plank, slowly lower your hip an inch or two and then slowly lift it back up. Repeat this for 30 seconds to a minute.

Bicycle crunches

It can be tempting to rush through bicycle crunches, but the key to this move is slow, controlled movements.

  1. Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your knees bent.
  2. Lift your shoulders and head off of the ground as you engage your abs. At the same time, lift your feet off the ground, keeping your knees bent, so that your shins are parallel to the ground.
  3. Slowly twist your body so that your left elbow moves toward your right knee. As you twist your body, extend your left leg straight out in front of you.
  4. Slowly twist in the other direction, bring your left leg back to its bent position, with your right elbow moving toward your left knee. As you twist your body, extend your right leg out in front of you.
  5. Do 15 to 30 repetitions.

Russian twists

This is another seated exercise. You can modify it by adding weight. If you’re new to this exercise, try doing it without weight, first. As you get used to it, you can try holding a hand weight, filled water bottle, or even a can of soup or vegetables to increase the resistance.

  1. Start in a seated position on the floor with your butt on the ground, your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Tightening your abdomen, lean your torso back so that you’re at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. If you aren’t using a weight, clasp your hands together. If you are using a weight, hold it in your hands, just above your abdomen.
  3. Still with knees bent, lift your feet off of the ground so that you’re balancing on your butt. For additional support, you can cross your ankles.
  4. Twist your torso to the right, bringing your clasped hands or your weight to the right side of your body.
  5. Twist to the left, touching the weight or your hands to the left side of your body.
  6. Repeat for 30 seconds to a minute.

Mountain climber

This move can help increase your heart rate as you strengthen your muscles. Work up to increasing your speed as you get stronger.

  1. Start in a plank position. To get into a plank position, lie flat on the floor, face down. Place your hands underneath your shoulders, curl your toes so that they’re pressing into the floor, and push up. Your arms should be straight, but not locked, and your body should form a straight line from your head to your toes.
  2. Lift your right foot off of the ground and pull your right knee toward your left elbow. Keep your abs tight.
  3. Hold the move briefly, and then return your foot to its original position.
  4. Repeat on the other side.
  5. Continue this move for 30 seconds to a minute.

You can increase your speed and extend the time as you develop more strength.

Bridge

This exercise not only targets the lower back, it’s also great for your glutes:

  1. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent, your arms at your sides, and your palms flat against the floor.
  2. Slowly lift your butt and lower back off the floor to create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
  3. Squeeze your glutes together and hold for up to 30 seconds, or until you feel your abs and glutes sagging, whichever happens first.
  4. Slowly release your muscles and lower yourself back down to the ground.
  5. Repeat 10 times.

To make the move more challenging, you can try lifting one foot off of the floor as you lift your hips. Switch which leg you lift with each repetition.

Lifestyle changes to try

Adopting healthy habits can help you to get rid of love handles and also prevent them from coming back.

If you need to lose weight, the Office on Women’s Health recommends losing one to two pounds a week to ensure gradual, but steady losses.

Dietary changes and portion control can complement increased exercise and fat-burning activities.

  • Plant-based foods, such as berries, dark leafy greens, and whole grains offer vital nutrients without the extra calories and fat.
  • Stick with lean protein sources, such as eggs, fish, and white-meat poultry over red meats.
  • Beans and legumes can keep you full so that you can reduce your daily calorie intake.
  • Keep your sodium intake to under 2,300 milligrams per day. Not only does this reduce your risk for hypertension, but it can also help prevent fluid retention that can make love handles worse.

Aside from changing your body from the inside, you can also help camouflage the appearance of love handles from the outside.

Select pants that fit at the waist, rather than at your hips. This can help reduce the constriction around the hips that emphasizes love handles in the first place. Also, make sure your pants and underwear aren’t too tight.

Medical procedures

Certain forms of plastic surgery are sometimes used to reduce fat retention in specific areas of the body. One of these procedures is called liposuction.

During liposuction, a surgeon injects a solution into the targeted region, such as your hips, to liquefy fat cells. Then they remove the fat cells using a vacuum-like aspirator. Results may be seen within a few days of treatment.

Liposuction isn’t a whole-body solution. It only treats specific, targeted areas. Plus, without lifestyle changes, the fat cells are likely to return. Liposuction is recommended only for people who are slight to moderately overweight.

Other procedures may be used to support weight loss in adults who are obese. These include gastric bands or gastric bypass surgery. If you’re obese and have love handles, such procedures may be more effective than liposuction. Only consider these procedures if you have a BMI over 40 or a BMI over 35 combined with other related health issues.

What’s the takeaway?

Love handles can be a side effect of excess body fat, especially fat in the area of your hips and lower abdomen. Increased activity and healthier eating can contribute to shrinking love handles as part of overall fat loss, but it’s important to remember that this can also take some time.

Stick with your plan for a healthier lifestyle, and you’ll eventually reap both the aesthetic and underlying health benefits.

If you’re unable to lose weight despite diet and exercise, see your doctor for advice. They may order blood tests to check for possible underlying issues, such as hypothyroidism, or have recommendations for surgical procedures.

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