Thursday 18 July, 2019

Are you relying on the scale too much?

By Meisha-Gay Mattis

Your scale may just be misleading you. The fitness industry is transitioning and trainers who are up to date will tell you that the best way to go about accomplishing your overall fitness goals is to focus on your body composition, not the number of a scale or your body mass index (BMI).

Body composition is not just a better way of analysing your weight, but an even better way to focus on improving your overall health. It incorporates skeletal muscle mass, body fat mass, and basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the estimated amount of calories the body burns at rest for a 24 hour period. All of this plays a pivotal role in depicting overall health.

I’m not recommending that we toss BMI out the window, because it does have its purpose of giving a general view if one is on the path to obesity. Nonetheless, if you are results driven and have been exercising and maintaining a healthy diet, you can skip the BMI and focus more on body composition. 

Think about a body composition analysis as a complete breakdown of the state of your body in the same sense as you would taking your car for servicing. The service department gives you a comprehensive analysis of what’s going on with your car—brake fluids, ac filter, oil change, spark plug, etc—and shows you any deficiencies. Body composition tells you your body fat percentage, muscle mass percentage, and the rate at which your body burn calories when it is at rest for 24 hours, and also identifies weak side imbalances so you may correct them. Additionally, it gives you a better understanding as to why the scale may not be budging even though you’ve been working out like crazy and how to get it to move in the desired direction.

Body composition analysis also takes into consideration how fat works. The body is made up fat mass and fat-free mass. Fat mass comprises of fat that allows the body to store energy, protects internal organs, acts as insulation and regulates body temperature, while fat-free mass comprises of protein, bone and muscle. These are not attributed to fat. They, however, make up all your internal organs, skeletal muscle mass and body water. This gives a better description of one's health than the number on the scale or you BMI because a whole lot takes place inside the body than meets the eyes. At times we can be so focused on weight that we lose sight of what’s really important, which is overall health. Try not to focus too much of the scale.

Why is Body Composition so Important?

Although low body fat is the goal in most cases, no one has 0 per cent body fat and too low a percentage can be as detrimental to health as too high a percentage. There’s a lot more to our bodies than just losing and gaining weight.

Here’s a great way to drive the point home and better understand how effective body composition analysis can be. Is there a difference between 10 pounds of steel and 10 pounds cotton? You’re probably thinking 10 pounds is 10 pounds regardless, but would the impact be the same if either is to fall on your toes? Think of fat and muscle in the same sense. Muscle is significantly denser than fat and takes up less space. To say the very least, we are now seeing how insufficient BMI is. If we are to look at the BMIs for Lebron James, Serena Williams or Usain Bolt they might be considered overweight. For the average person who is neither athletic nor overweight, BMI can be a fairly good indicator of their current weight with respect to their height. But for those whose lives are sedentary or those who are active, BMI will be somewhat troublesome.  

Using the BMI metrics, LeBron James — a professional basketball player with a height of 2.03m (about 6’ 8”) and 113 kg (about 249 pounds), would be considered pre-obese with a BMI of 27.8, based on the chart. Now, if you know who LeBron is or what he looks like, then it’s obvious he’s not overweight or pre-obese, just athletic—as is the case with most very athletic individuals.

On the flip side, here’s a customer care representative with a very sedentary job of sitting at a desk and answering phone calls for most of the day. He maintains a healthy diet but not a regular gym schedule and is very conscious about trying to shed a few pound. His height is 1.7m (about 5’ 6”) and weight 66 kg (about 146 pounds) so he would have a BMI of 19.5, for which he would be considered normal range. But in reality it’s not. The term “skinny fat” may come to mind—being fat on the inside but not displaying it visibly. Many people are walking around in this current predicament because the scale and BMI gives them a favourable result. Not knowing the truth puts them at risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other non-communicable diseases. So BMI is really just a fraction of the puzzle.

If overall good health and quality of life is your aim, then body fat percentage matters more than weight and BMI. Don't get hung up on the look of low body fat and a ripped physique. Rather, it’s more about reducing your risk of high cholesterol, which increases your chance of heart disease as a result of having too much body fat.

You're probably wondering, “how do I go about determining my body composition?” And this can be done in several ways, from simple to more sophisticated methods. These methods also vary widely in cost and accuracy. Here are a few:

Skinfold caliper - This is one of the most common tools because of how easy it is to use. It  gives a reasonably accurate depiction of body fat. It is also portable and reasonably priced, so you can keep one around your household. Use it to ‘pinch’ a few noticeable areas on the body such as obliques, triceps, lower abdomen, or shoulder blade to provide a reading.

Hand-held body fat monitor - This is another popular device that deliver results in a few seconds. Like the caliper, you are likely to find this at your local gym because of its ease to use.

These are other body composition analysis machines out there, but they require the use of a specialist; for example, Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA), which may found at a hospital or a facility that specializes in weight loss surgeries.

Now that we’ve looked at the misconception of depending solely on the scale and your BMI, hopefully you won't be so steadfast on those metrics and aim for overall health and body performance. A fitter body is healthier and happier, and a better body composition will ultimately lead to better performance.

If you are really interested in knowing and understanding your body composition, schedule a consultation with a specialist or purchase one of the simple devices named above that are available for household and private use. If you’re not measuring, you’re guessing, and depending on the scale will only tell you if you are losing or gaining weight and we know there’s more to getting or staying healthy than that.

Contributed by Meisha-Gay Mattis, founder of Bodhi, a Kingston-based holistic wellness company. She is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Personal Fitness Trainer. Email for more information or visit any of the following 

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