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Measuring Body Fat

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If your pants feel tighter than usual, you might begin to suspect that you’ve gained a couple of pounds. But at what point should you begin to worry that the weight gain is serious?  Could you be one of the approximately two-thirds of American adults who are either overweight or obese, with an increased risk for conditions like diabetes and heart disease?  While no single measurement is perfect, here are a few ways to size yourself up.

Weigh Yourself:

Positive: Easy and handy. In a 2007 study published in the journal Obesity, researchers found that dieters who regularly and frequently weighed themselves appeared more likely to keep the weight off over time.  Buying a scale for your bathroom to keep track of weight won’t break the bank.

Negative: You know how you can be skinny but out of shape? Or heavy and fit? Body weight doesn’t take into account the proportion of fat in the body, or where that fat is deposited — factors that can point to health trouble.  Also, experts say dieters often make the mistake of fixating on the number between their toes instead of focusing on changing the behavior that can improve it. 

Body mass index (BMI)

Positive: Your BMI provides a lot more information than your bathroom scale, specifically a measure of body fat. “Fat is more important than weight,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population science at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Excessive fatness is the definition of obesity, not excessive weight — and having too much fat can cause serious health problems.”

This calculation uses a ratio of weight to height to estimate body fat and obesity.

A BMI of less than 18.5 is underweight. A BMI of 18.5–24.9 is normal. A BMI of 25–29.9 is overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is obese.

Negative: Since the BMI tool cannot distinguish between lean muscle mass and body fat, it has a tendency to overestimate the level of body fat in people who have a lot of muscle — say, Arnold Schwarzenegger — and underestimate the amount of body fat in people who have lost muscle mass, such as the elderly.

Bodyfat Testing With Skinfold Calipers

The Skinfold caliper is a device which measures the thickness of a fold of your skin with its underlying layer of fat.  By doing this at the key locations can be a quite accurate representative of the total amount of fat that is on your body, it is also possible to estimate the total percent of bodyfat on your body.

Positive:  This is the cheapest and the most accurate way to measure body fat without going to the doctor and using expensive devices to measure body fat.

Negative:  It can be hard to get an accurate measurement without someone else helping.  If the measurements are not taken in the correct spots, the measurements could be inaccurate.

I use the software by  Click HERE to access their body fat calculator page.  There are separate calculation methods for men and women, and there are multiple methods to use.  You can experiment with them to determine which one you find most predictable and repeatable.  It’s a good idea the first time to measure your body fat with multiple methods to be sure you are doing it correctly.

Once you get used to the caliper method, you can be sure that your changes in body fat are very accurate.  While operator error may lead to a slight variation in the body fat reading, any changes will be very precise (as long as you measure the same way each time).  For instance, if you measure 10% body fat, you can assume that you are anywhere from 9% to 11% depending on operator error.  But if the next time you measure, you measure 9.5%, you know for certain that you lost .5% body fat (even though you still could be in a range from 8.5% to 10.5% of actual body fat depending on operator error).

I like the Jackson/Pollack 3 site method because it’s quick, easy, and accurate.  It requires measuring sites on the chest, the abdomen, and the thigh.  When I take these measurements, my readings are 5mm for the chest, 7mm for the abdomen, and 9mm for the thigh.  By plugging in my age and weight, it calculates my body fat at 8.57%, with a lean body weight of 173 and 16 lbs of body fat.  This is a handy thing to know as we work to build muscle and lose body fat.

So many times we get frustrated if the scale isn’t moving down, but what we all should care about more is what is happening with our body fat percentage.  Building muscle is a good thing, and it makes us more fit, more healthy, and able to burn more calories all day long.  Often people burn up their precious muscle mass in an effort to crash diet and lose weight.  This sets them up for failure because they have less muscle mass to burn calories and when they fall off the wagon, they gain back all the weight and then some.

Do yourself a favor, get some calipers, get comfortable with a measurement method, and check your body fat every week or 2 weeks.  Write it down so you can monitor your progress.  I started Round 1 at 24% body fat.  By day 90, I was at 10%.

I hope this review of body fat calculation helps you monitor your progress more accurately!


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