How to Use Body Composition to Track Your Progress

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 is it exactly? To be considered "fit," you have to meet minimum standards in five 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

This is 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," but this idea has some problem areas.  For example, you could start lifting weights and actually gain weightbut that doesn’t necessarily mean you are tipping the scales toward 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 five pounds or so. Most of these regular changes are due to food and water. If weight is an important record for you, then do it under the same circumstances (no clothes or shoes, first thing in the morning before eating, et cetera) and no more than every one to two 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 three to five percent essential fat at the lowest levels, whereas women need at least 12 to 15 percent 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.<pagebreak>
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. 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.