Health & Grooming

Extra leg groom

From complex light therapies to fat-cell freezing to spot training, the path to perfect legs is getting a whole lot easier. Antonia Whyatt reports.

May 31 2010
Antonia Whyatt

Every new fashion season introduces a hurdle that seems designed to test women’s anatomical limits; whether it’s body-con dresses or lingerie-inspired formal wear, one lone trend can put just that much more flesh on show. This spring-summer there was one resounding message on the catwalks: legs, legs, legs. From Balenciaga’s minis to Burberry’s city shorts, they are on display. But the prospect of short skirts – and beach and poolside wear – can daunt even the most dedicated gym-goer, as issues such as thread veins and less-than-taut skin aren’t necessarily conquered by a standard (even if vigorous) workout regimen. Thankfully, a handful of vanguard outpatient treatments are being adapted from facial skincare practices and hard science to address the skin and texture of legs. Meanwhile, in the gym, new spot-training experts are working muscles in unorthodox ways to actually change the silhouette.

Just as crêpey skin around the eyes and slackness at the jaw are being corrected with lasers and light therapy, now the skin on the body is being targeted with the same high-tech precision. The Pod – the latest anti-ageing system in the arsenal of London dermatologist Dr Frances Prenna Jones – looks a bit like an MRI machine spliced onto a tanning bed. It bathes the body in near-infrared and LED (light-emitting diode) light, currently one of the most effective treatments for diminishing fine lines and crow’s feet. The energy delivered by the near-infrared light enhances the basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the speed at which cells metabolise – which accelerates the repair and replenishment of damaged skin and stimulates collagen production (and, as a felicitous by-product, increases general metabolic rate).

Certainly, being encased in a giant plastic shell that heats to 76ºC is a bit daunting, though the face is left free. The whole Pod vibrates to increase blood flow, oxygenation and detoxification; a twenty-five minute session feels akin to lying on the deck of a boat that is gently motoring through the Mediterranean. Results are impressive: after five treatments I saw weight loss of a kilo and significantly more even skin tone. (The most surprising side effect? Some get a rosier outlook on life as the LEDs also stimulate serotonin uptake inhibitors that are depleted by the long winter months.)

Laser and light therapies have also been used to reduce the appearance of cellulite, but with erratic success. Fortunately, the US Federal Drug Administration is assessing, and looks to be on the verge of approving, a new fat-manipulating cellulite treatment called Cryolipolysis. Pioneered by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, it resulted from the discovery that fat cells are uniquely sensitive to cold: once frozen, they are permanently killed off and eventually metabolised by the liver. During treatment, teacup-sized saucers literally suck heat out of the skin until the subcutaneous levels of fat are frozen. The epidermis remains undamaged as heat is deposited in the skin’s outer layer on its way out.

According to the researchers’ results, Cryolipolysis promises to be more effective than other non-invasive procedures – with an average 20 per cent reduction in fat deposits from a single session – and has no known serious side effects. As it stands, though, there are a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, the manufacturer, Zeltiq, has designed suction cups only large enough to target love handles and saddlebags. Secondly, visible results aren’t instant – it takes the liver several weeks to fully break down and expel the fat.

Thread and varicose veins appear increasingly conquerable as well. In London, consultant vascular surgeon Mark Whiteley has pioneered techniques for both. The old standard of stripping varicose veins is aesthetically effective, but fairly invasive; and Whiteley’s research recently proved that veins can grow back. Whitely instead uses radio-frequency ablation to destroy varicose veins, whereupon they’re absorbed by the body. Thread veins, meanwhile, are injected with a medical-grade detergent to dissolve the fat that makes up cell walls, killing them permanently (which the popular saline injection method doesn’t).

Like Cryolipolysis, this is a procedure that should be done in advance of leg-baring season, as it can take four to eight weeks for the bruising to disappear completely. And Whiteley is far from cavalier in his prescription: “No one should consider these treatments unless they’ve had a Doppler scan or ultrasound,” he says. “89 per cent of people with thread veins have [associated] underlying problems; so the most important thing is to see what is causing them before you have any work done.”

Whiteley’s offerings aren’t limited just to vein treatments, however; he has set up an entire aesthetic unit for legs. He and his nurses can perform Laser Lipolysis – whereby fat cells are heated and dispersed by a laser fibre inserted subcutaneously through a small (1mm-2mm) tube – as well as endermology, the target massage for mild cellulite. “The skin is supported by guide ropes made up of collagen. When that system weakens, the areas between become full of fat and fluid and bulge out, giving a dimpled appearance,” explains Whiteley. Repeated lifting (via light pinching) and dropping of the skin in endermology pushes the fluid back into the lymphatic system so that it drains away.

Actual shape-changing for legs may sound far-fetched, but some insist that it can be done through intensive spot-training. Devotees include Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, who favour the US-based, guru-like Tracy Anderson. London’s Jonathan Goodair trained with Anderson, and is the man to coerce (and cajole, and even bully) muscles into a more aesthetically pleasing shape.

“The goal is to get the long leg muscles, such as the sartorious [which runs the length of the thigh from side to back] and the rectus femoris [at the front of the thigh], really doing the work,” he explains. “This way, you can achieve the impression of more length in the legs.”

Goodair’s soft-spoken attitude is perfectly suited to Home House, the private club at which he’s based. His preliminary consultation takes in imbalances and imperfections with an eagle eye, and gets the other leg muscles working to correct them. Traditional gym machines such as the treadmill and step-trainer are put to highly creative use: clients run, skip and hop sideways, sometimes on tiptoe, doing high kicks and scissoring their legs. He switches dynamically back and forth between cardio and Pilates, as anaerobic strength-building done in elongated postures results in visibly longer and leaner muscles.

The workout isn’t faint-outside-the-door in its intensity; but the precision of action results in acute, satisfying aches in the all the right places, from backside to lower thigh. Goodair also creates a handy series of takeaway cards showing the key moves and postures so they can be practised at home. For optimum results Goodair recommends a detox regime prior to an intensive two-week training programme. Real visible results then come after two months of at least three sessions a week, whether with him or at home; “Three is the minimum, otherwise your daily activities override the work we’re doing with your legs.”

Target training is also the focus at Heartcore, where German personal trainer Jessica Schuring has created a leg-specific session based on the Heartcore method – low-impact training utilising a customised Pilates Reformer machine, called the Proformer. “Lunges performed on the Proformer get legs working much quicker,” says Schuring. “The action of pushing the platform away with one leg stretches and strengthens simultaneously.” And this leads to more elongated muscles in less time. Other actions – such as “skating”, where one foot is on the platform and one on the carriage, then squatting, pushing the carriage away – work as many leg muscles simultaneously as possible.

Schuring’s provenance – Hollywood’s famed Pilates Plus studio, personal trainer to a gallery of A-listers – may read a bit breathlessly, but she has serious credentials (competitive cyclists come to her for specialist leg training) and a devout clientele on both sides of the Atlantic testifying to her results. Many of them are likely to download the condensed leg workout available on her website this month – 20 minutes of repetitions with precise instructions that can be performed anywhere – letting them face the season’s abbreviated lengths very long on confidence indeed.