How to Know That Your Diet and Exercise Program is Actually Working

I was discussing with a friend who was trying to decide if he needed a trainer. He told me that he was "holding his own" because he still weighed 150 pounds, the same as 25 years ago when he was a senior in High School. I congratulated him on his ability to maintain a scale weight that, for his height, might reflect good health on some accepted charts out there and then asked what size clothes he was wearing now compared to 25 years ago. In High School his waist size was a 28, he was now moving into a 36. He had been backing off on how much food he was eating, but his pant size seemed to continue to grow. I suggested that it would be interesting to know how much of those 150 pounds from 25 years ago was lean mass (or muscle) and how much was fat. Something had definitely changed if his waist had increased by 8 inches. My friend, like many other people, had mistakenly used the scale as the only means of measuring his progress through the years. Later, when we compared a High School picture to his current appearance, the difference was very noticeable.

How to Know That Your Diet and Exercise Program is Actually Working

In high school, out of the 150 pounds of scale weight, 10 percent could have been fat, leaving the other 90 percent as lean mass (muscle, bone, body fluid, vital organs, brain, and skin). This would pan out to be 15 pounds of fat and 135 pounds of lean mass. At 43 years old that same 150 pounds could have increased to 25 percent fat leaving 75 percent as lean mass. This would be 30 pounds of fat and 120 pounds of lean mass. That's an increase of 15 pounds of fat and a loss of 15 pounds of lean mass / muscle. Since each pound of muscle burns an additional 30 to 60 calories per day, that's why my friend needed to reduce his daily calories to maintain the same weight. That also would explain his need for larger clothes.

In this article, I will address measuring body composition, which helped my friend understand what had happened over the last 25 years. Body Composition (BC) is also called body fat percentage and can be a significant tool for measuring the effectiveness of an eating and / or exercise program.

WHY KEEP TRACK? Keeping track of one's progress, gains, and losses is one of the most important keys to physique transformation success. This area is often overlooked because it seems confusing, too time consuming, or too "technical" to learn and accurately track. Trust me, over the years I have seen both sides. Some people keep impeccable records to track their progress while others "fly by the seat of their pants". It never seems to fail that the people who spent the time to learn how to measure and monitor their results have better and more consistent results than those who don't. DO NOT OVERLOOK THE IMPORTANCE OF MEASURING YOUR PROGRESS!

Height / Weight charts have been very popular to determine if a person is "overweight" but give no indication of BC. The term "overweight" only refers to total scale weight in excess of some standard - we need to ask, "What or whose standard and what was it based on?" Being "above average" or "not ideal" by height-weight charts does not dictate whether or not you need to go on a weight loss program.

The body mass index (BMI) is also very popular as another way that people measure their degree of fatness or obesity based on comparing body height to body weight. BMI doesn't distinguish between fat weight or lean mass / muscle weight, and only uses total weight which ends up making it a less than ideal way to gauge body composition.

BC measurement determines approximate fat mass / weight and lean mass / muscle weight (muscle makes up the greatest percent of lean mass weight). For purposes of this discussion, lean mass (LM) will be viewed as muscle. BC can help us know how to structure our eating plans based on total LM / muscle.

When you measure your BC, it should be done under as similar of conditions as possible (first thing in AM on an empty stomach before any exercise, same day of week, same eating / hydration plan). BC should be avoided during water gain / loss associated w/ different phases of the menstrual cycle. Measurements should occur every 2 to 4 weeks. More frequent measurements, unless you are training for competitive events or getting ready for a bodybuilding competition, are usually a waste of time.

Let's take a closer look at the differences between lean body mass and fat mass. Lean Body Mass (LBM) is how much of your total scale weight is muscle, bone, body fluid / water, muscle glycogen, minerals, vital organs, brain, skin, etc. This is essential and "healthy" weight. It should be most everyone's goal to increase, or at a minimum to maintain, their lean mass weight. LBM does not necessarily indicate fat free mass. LBM contains a small percentage of fat (roughly 3 percent) within the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), marrow of bones, and internal organs. Remember that for every pound of muscle, your body burns from 30 to 60 calories per day.

Body fat is the amount of total fat we have on our bodies. It is important to remember that everyone needs to maintain a certain amount of "healthy" fat in order to optimize health. Total body fat exists in two storage sites - one being Essential fat, the other is Storage fat. Essential fat is the fat stored in the marrow of bones, and in the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney, intestines, muscle, brain, and spinal cord. It is required for normal physiological functioning (i.e. life). Storage fat is the fat that accumulates in fatty tissue. This "nutritional reserve" includes fatty tissue that protects organs and the fat located directly under the skin. The proportion of storage fat is very similar in males and females (average 12 percent in men and 15 percent in women); the amount of essential fat is approximately four times higher in women. This is likely needed for child-bearing and hormone related functions.

A general guide for the percentage of body fat in men and women based on category would be:

  • Essential fat (percentage) - 2 to 5 for men, 9 to 12 for women
  • Bodybuilder - 3 to 8 for men, 8 to 12 for women
  • Athletic Groups - 5 to 13 for men, 10 to 15 for women
  • Optimal Health and Fitness - 10 to 18 for men, 14 to 18 for women
  • Average body fat - 11 to 18 for men, 21 to 28 for women
  • Strongly consider reducing body (fat percentage) - over 20 for men, over 26 for women

A brief review of techniques for measuring BC are: Hydrostatic weighing (underwater weighing), air displacement plethysmograph (the Bod Pod) which utilizes body density (the ratio of body mass to body volume), skin caliper measurements, girth measurements, and bioelectrical impedance. Others that may be less familiar include ultrasound, x-ray, CT scans, and MRI's. For this article, I discuss one of the most practical and least expensive methods for measuring BC, Skin Caliper Measurements.

The rational for using Skin Caliper Measurements, sometimes called skin fold testing, is that there is a relationship between the fat located directly beneath the skin and that of internal fat and body density. A special caliber is utilized to measure the skin fold thickness in millimeters at specific sites on the body. The most common sites include the triceps, chest, sub scapular area (back), suprailiac (hip region), abdomen, and upper thigh. Based on these site measurements, formulas are then used to predict body fat percentage.

Skin fold measurement can be used two ways. The first is to take the sum of all the measurements as a relative degree of fatness among individuals. Some fitness organizations gauge progress by comparing specific body site measurements or the total for all body sites rather than relying on estimation formulas to predict body fat. The second way to use skin folds is in conjunction with mathematical equations to predict percentage body fat. These equations are population specific and accurate when similar populations are tested. Skin fold equations have been developed to estimate the BF of men and women varying in age from 10 to 61, and body fatness from 4 to 44 percent. Skin caliper readings become less accurate at extremes of both leanness and fatness.

Most experts agree that measuring body fat levels using this method is about plus / minus 3 to 5 percent accurate. Some would even claim plus / minus 10 - 12 percent accuracy. Remember: CONSISTENCY IS THE KEY -- CONSISTENCY EACH TIME YOU MEASURE. Consistency from one measurement to the next is much more critical than how accurate the skin fold measurements or formulas are. A lot will depend on how much pressure the person doing the measuring uses when they pinch a skin fold. A key here is to use the same person each time you measure - and try to assure that the same pressure is used each time.

Each person has a different genetic predisposition for carrying fat or being leaner in different areas of the body. There are several formulas that are used to calculate body fat percentage. Some will use different body site locations as well as a different number of sites to measure. If you begin to compete in physique or bodybuilding contests, you may need to seek out more advanced or more precise methods.
I wish everyone who is dieting or losing weight would be sure to measure their body composition as they go along. I believe it is crucial for people to stay focused on fat loss and not just weight loss. Too many people get hooked on weight loss, not really caring if it's coming from fat, water, or lean mass. If people are losing over 2 pounds of scale weight per week, research tells us that some of that is lean mass. If you want to lose significant amounts of body fat as rapidly as possible, you need to be sure of where the weight is coming from, fat or muscle.

Advantages to skin fold testing are simplicity, accuracy when done by experienced persons, and excellent in detecting change when done by the same technician in the same sites, under similar circumstances. Disadvantages include not being a part of a population utilized to determine values (i.e. a female being compared to an all male standard), variability in procedure, body proportions to large for caliber testing, inexperienced person taking measurements, etc. Caliper measurement of 3 to 4 millimeters represents essentially zero subcutaneous fat. At this level, rely more on appearance rather than measurements.

If you are committed to a fitness lifestyle, I would suggest that you learn how to conduct body fat measurements on yourself, your partner or other family members so that you can become your own expert on monitoring your body composition. When learning, you will want to practice on yourself and possibly others, many times to develop accuracy. Skin caliper measurements, when done correctly and consistently, are one of the least expensive, most accurate "at-home" measurement systems available today. Regardless of the margin of error, as long as you are measuring consistently and accurately, each time you measure, you will have a very practical method to track the effectiveness of your training and nutrition program. Even if you measure yourself differently than someone else would, as long as you measure consistently every time, you will have accurate readings (and comparisons) to track your progress and adjust your eating and training plans.

When measuring a body fat measurement, it is best to do it first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, before any type of exercise, and before you drink any fluid. It's important to always measure on the same side of the body. Most instructions recommend that you use the right side. You will be taking at least two different measurements at each site. Cycle through the body by going from one site to the next to the next, etc. until you have measured each site once. Repeat this cycle a second time. If the two measurements are more than 1 millimeter apart, I suggest that you measure a third time. Measuring the same skin fold several times without releasing your "pinch" could result in progressively lower measurements leading to inaccuracy, not to mention a higher risk of bruising. Cycling through each site and then repeating the cycle a second and sometimes third time will ensure at least 30 seconds to go by before you measure the same site again.

When you are first learning how to measure, you may want to get an eyebrow pencil and mark an "X" over the spot you will be pinching. This will help assure that you will be measuring the same spot each of the three times. As you get more experienced with measuring, you should be able to get the 3 measurements (of the same body site) to come within one to two millimeters of each other (millimeters are the increment of measurement on the skin caliper). I suggest that you decide how often you want to take your body composition measurements and stick with that schedule. You could perform measurements every two weeks or once per month. Once you are efficient at measuring and you have been consistently working out while following an eating plan, you will be able to use your body composition measurements to guide you in adjusting total calories in your eating plan and composition / frequency of your workouts.

Comparing your present body fat percentage with your past measurements can be one of the most significant indicators in gauging your success with whatever eating or exercise programs you are using.

Article Source:
Previous Post Next Post