Print This Page SparkPeople

Body Composition Measures Results

Use these Numbers to Track your Progress
  -- By Nicole Nichols, Personal Trainer
Some people can measure their weight loss by the way they feel and look: firmer thighs, a smaller waist, jiggle-free arms. But then there are the number-crazy ones who desperately need some kind (any kind!) of concrete proof that all their hard work is paying off. They want to gauge their progress a different way. Give them numbers on paper, or some kind of chart and they’re ecstatic.

There are so many numbers to go by (pounds, pant size, inches), but not all are created equal. So, which figures say the most about your own figure? If you are someone who gasps when the scale shows a one or two pound weight gain ("I haven’t cheated at all. How could I be gaining?"), then learning about body composition will help you see real, measurable results.

Body composition. We hear a lot about it... but what exactly is it? Well, to be considered "fit," you have to meet minimum standards in 5 different areas, known as the Components of Fitness. Body Composition is one of them (in addition to flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and aerobic fitness). Body composition itself deals with four areas:

1. Weight
Your total body mass. We’re all too familiar with this one, in most cases. But weight alone doesn’t tell you the whole truth about your progress or fitness level. For example, it doesn’t tell you how much fat you carry. People generically want to lose "weight." You could start lifting weights and actually gain weight…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are tipping the scales towards obesity.
2. Fat Mass Usually referred to as body fat percentage. This number tells you how much of your total body weight is actual fat. Men and women go by different minimums and healthy ranges of fat. For example, men need about 3%-5% essential fat at the lowest levels, whereas women need at least 12%-15% to be considered healthy and be able to sustain a menstrual cycle (and numbers this low could be considered underweight). A standard height and weight chart cannot accurately tell you if you are overweight, but body fat percentage, on the other hand, can. 3. Lean Mass This is everything else that makes up your weight. It includes muscle, bones, organs, water, and all non-fatty tissues. Again, there is a gender difference. Thanks to much higher levels of testosterone, men have a greater amount of muscle mass than women. One pound of muscle takes up much less space than one pound of fat. So, as you exercise consistently and build up strength, your total body weight may actually increase. This can be confusing (and sometimes scary), but you are gaining muscle, while maintaining or even losing fat. 4. Fat Distribution Ever notice how some people can have big bellies but lean legs? Women store most of their fat in their thighs, hips, and butt. These are examples of fat distribution, which refers to where your body typically stores the fat that you have. This is important because where you store fat can be a predictor of health risk. "Apple" shapes (fat storage around the belly) have been shown to have a higher risk of certain cardiovascular diseases, whereas storing fat in your lower half, known as a "Pear" shape, is actually a healthier site for fat accumulation. Whatever your fitness goal, measuring body composition will help you track your progress, not to mention leave little doubt that all those little (and sometimes big) changes you’ve made are moving you in the right direction. Bottom line: If your goal is fat loss, then measure progress by decreases in body fat percentage, and possibly improved fat distribution. If your aim is to increase strength, then lean body mass will tell you how much muscle you have gained. Breathe a sigh of relief, number-crunchers. These are the only numbers you need to help you meet your goals.