Fitness Articles

Body Composition Measures Results

Use these Numbers to Track your Progress

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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.
  • How to use it: Forget your preconceptions about the number on the scale. Knowing your weight is good, but not crucial—you want to lose fat, not necessarily weight. If you must weigh yourself, don’t make it a daily habit. Weight tends to fluctuate throughout the day, and from day-to-day, by as much as 5 pounds or so. Most of these regular changes are due to food and water. If weight is an important record to you, then do it under the same circumstances (no clothes or shoes, first thing in the morning before eating, etc) and no more than every 1-2 weeks.
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.
  • Track your progress: Observing change in body fat is the best way to measure "weight" loss. There are user-friendly formulas that can estimate your body fat percentage, but the most accurate readings come from a qualified fitness professional. To see a trend, reassess your body fat every four to six weeks.
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.
  • Look for gains: Your lean mass can be calculated by subtracting your total fat (as a percentage or in actual pounds) from your total weight. This number will probably be relatively stable, or increase over time, as long as you are exercising. Gains in muscle mass will increase your metabolism, thus enabling you to burn more calories during every activity—even sitting! So, while you do want to lose fat, setting a goal of increasing your muscle mass will help you get there.
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.
  • Room for improvement: Changes in fat distribution happen when you are losing fat and building muscle. Typically, the body burns fat all over, and just as typically, fat in the stomach is usually the last to go. There are no exercises you can do to speed up fat burn in any particular area. Cardio activity, utilizing large muscle groups, burns fat all over the body. So, don’t waste your time doing lots of crunches to lose the belly fat, or boxing to lose your arm jiggle. You can measure these changes with a simple tape measure, or just by how your clothes look and feel.
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.

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Member Comments

  • Good info..Thanx!
  • Great article, thanks!
  • Informative article! Thank you!
  • Thanks to everyone for sharing.
  • I saw someone mention earlier that having body composition measurements taken can be expensive. That's a myth, it doesn't have to be.

    Take some time to do the research, then have a look at the wonderful world of scales that Amazon has to offer. I recently purchased a scale that measures body fat %, skeletal muscle %, generic weight, BMI (if you care to measure that), visceral fat level (the dangerous fat that hangs out in your belly and around your vital organs) and even your Basal Metabolic Rate (rate your body burns calories at rest) at the time based on your body's composition. It was only $75. I say "only" because that was a 1-time payment, and I can weigh myself as often as I like without paying a professional something close to that each time.

    There are slightly more expensive models that also measure bone density (if you're concerned about osteoporosis etc.) and water weight. Those are the really complete ones. In my research before I made my purchase, I found a ton of different options ranging from $50 to about $140. And you know what? I saw the EXACT same device that a personal trainer used on me at the gym I used to be a member of to measure all of those things. The scale I ended up getting requires you to both stand on foot sensors AND hold sensors in your hands (like the devices many personal trainers use). So instead of just gathering info from my hands being the point of contact, it's gathering data from both hands and feet - slightly more accurate in my opinion.

    The brand I got was Omron and I've very happy with the scale. I can keep track of my body composition at every weekly weigh-in and have the ability to see how I'm changing and what behaviors or slip-ups may have stalled my progress and how. It's enlightening and empowering. And yes, $75 may seem expensive and doesn't always come easily in this economy. But let's be reasonable, your health is THAT important. The next time you're thinking of picking up that new game for the Xbox (which usually run $60 to $70 bucks) or detour to Starbucks or elsewhere for your ...
  • I'm so glad someone took the time to write an article like this. For too long we've heard that BMI is the way to go for measuring your weight, health and disease risk. BMI, however, doesn't take critical measurements into account. The weight of your body is made up of bone mass, muscle mass, fat percentage and water percentage. That will be completely different for every person, and much of one's natural body composition is genetic in nature. Just because someone's BMI is 32 doesn't necessarily mean they're super unhealthy.

    For example, a couple of weeks ago I lost a bit of body fat but gained a bit of muscle. That's a GOOD thing, an indication that I'm moving in the right direction. However, my BMI went up. To a traditional doctor, that would be a bad thing. Never mind that the loss was fat and the gain was muscle. They just see the BMI getting higher and want to instill fear in you.

    I stopped paying attention to BMI a while ago, and I wish health professionals would as well. Instead, I bit the bullet and invested in a body composition scale. It was expensive, but worth it. At least now I have a way at home to measure more than just my total weight and BMI. It may or may not be as accurate as whatever the professionals use, but it's got my thinking and behavior going in the right direction and that's what's important. Now when I weigh in, I'm not so naive. If I've lost weight, I'm more concerned about seeing WHY. Was it fat I lost, or muscle? If it was muscle, I evaluate my eating and activity level over the past week to see what may have caused the loss. I usually notice a drop in muscle mass when I have a few "bad" days and eat a bit more junk food, or don't get enough sleep. These are all good things to know and to be able to evaluate for better results, rather than just looking at an unexplained number on a scale and assuming I'm doing good because I'm losing weight.
  • Great article. Losing weight is fine. But tighten up everything is crazy. But I keep pushing myself and doing what I need to do to see results. Slow but they come. Woohoo

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.