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Breaking free from the scale: Why body composition matters more than weight



The equation takes into account factors such as the percentage of body fat, muscle mass, water content, and bone mass.

Body composition is not a common term – simply put, it is the understanding that a healthy body weight is not just that number you get when stepping on a scale. Body types which are considered desirable are also changing.

Unlike in the past, when women aspired for model-like bodies and men for six packs, the shift seems to be learning towards what is regarded as “healthy”. Women are now working towards a smaller upper body with a small waist plus fuller buttocks and thighs. The pressure for the six pack seems to have eased.

Embracing body composition over conventional metrics

A healthy, physically active man with strong arms seems to tick the box, according to conversations at the gym. Despite all these shifts, the focus should be on understanding body composition, because everyone’s body is different. As mentioned, it is no longer about jumping on the scale and using the number that appears on it as a yardstick.

We are now talking about and focusing on health and wellness. In fact, I often tell anyone who fusses about their weight to throw away their scale unless they are willing to look at and understand what the kilograms actually mean.

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Understanding your body composition

It relates to what your body is composed of: muscle, bone, fat, water and your organs. The two components most people focus on because they are easier to understand are fat percentage and muscle mass, neither of which can be measured without special equipment.

Individuals who want a better understanding of what their body weight is composed of should undergo a full body composition assessment with a biokineticist, sport scientist or personal trainer.

What to expect from an assessment

The two most easily accessible assessments are a bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) and skinfolds assessment. BIA involves stepping on a special scale barefoot or holding onto a specialised unit with your bare hands. An electrical current flows through your body tissues and estimates the fat percentage, muscle mass, total body water, fat-free body mass and bone mass.

This is not a painful or harmful procedure and you do not feel the current flowing through your body tissues. The skinfolds assessment which is used to primarily assess body fat percentage, involves the specialist using a tool called a skinfolds caliper to grasp seven areas on the body that will help determine fat percentage. The areas are the triceps (back of upper arm), chest (men only), mid-axillary (between armpit and waist), subscapular (below the scapular bone), suprailliac (above the hip bone), abdominal and front thigh.

Understanding your body beyond the scale

In addition to a BIA or skinfolds assessment, you will be required to have certain body parts measured using a measuring tape, including but not limited to waist, hips, thighs, calves, upper arm and chest.

You will also be required to step on a scale to provide your total body weight. This is done in order to create an extensive report on your body composition.

If you are not in a position to have a full-body composition assessment, you can track your body changes with a few measurements at home using a simple tape measure. You can measure your waist (at the level of the belly button), your hips (at the level of your buttocks) and each thigh individually.

Repeat these measurements every two months track changes. Alternatively, use your clothing as a guideline. Non-stretch jeans typically don’t lie and if they don’t fit, you instantly know where the problem is.

So, before you become discouraged because you have been training hard for months and your weight on the home or gym scale “tells you” that you are putting on weight, perhaps consider a comprehensive body composition assessment.

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