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Body Composition: What It Is and How to Measure It

by Pduran
body composition

Body composition is a term that refers to the proportion of different tissues in your body, such as fat, muscle, bone, and water. Knowing your body composition can help you assess your health and fitness level, as well as track your progress and goals.

What Is Body Composition?
Body composition is not the same as body weight or body mass index (BMI). Body weight is the total mass of your body, which includes fat, muscle, bone, water, and other tissues. BMI is a ratio of your weight to your height, which is used to classify your weight status (underweight, normal, overweight, or obese).

However, body weight and BMI do not tell you how much of your weight is fat and how much is lean tissue. For example, two people with the same height and weight may have different body compositions. One may have more muscle mass and less body fat, while the other may have more body fat and less muscle mass. This can affect their health and fitness in different ways.

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Body composition is usually expressed as a percentage of body fat and a percentage of fat-free mass (or lean mass). Body fat is the amount of adipose tissue in your body, which stores energy and provides insulation and cushioning. Fat-free mass is the amount of non-fat tissue in your body, which includes muscle, bone, water, organs, and skin.

Why Is Body Composition Important?
Body composition is important because it can give you a better idea of your health risk and fitness level than body weight or BMI alone. Having too much body fat can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and some cancers. Having too little body fat can also be harmful, as it can impair your immune system, hormone function, reproductive health, and bone density.

On the other hand, having more muscle mass can improve your metabolism, strength, endurance, posture, balance, and injury prevention. Muscle mass also helps you burn more calories at rest and during exercise. Having more bone mass can protect you from osteoporosis and fractures.

Therefore, maintaining a healthy body composition can help you prevent or manage various health conditions, as well as enhance your physical performance and appearance.

How to Measure Body Composition
There are various methods to measure body composition, ranging from simple to complex. Some are more accessible but may be less accurate, while others may be harder to access and more accurate. Here are some common ways to measure body composition:

• Bioelectrical impedance (BIA): This method uses a device that sends a small electrical current through your body and measures how much it is resisted by different tissues. Fat tissue has more resistance than lean tissue because it has less water content. BIA devices can be found in some scales or handheld devices that you can use at home or at a gym. However, BIA results can be affected by factors such as hydration level, food intake, skin temperature, and menstrual cycle.

• Skinfold measurements: This method involves the use of special calipers that measure the thickness of subcutaneous fat (the fat under your skin) at various sites on your body. The measurements are then plugged into an equation that estimates your body fat percentage based on your age and gender. Skinfold measurements can be done by a trained professional or by yourself with some practice. However, skinfold measurements can be inaccurate if the calipers are not used correctly or if the equation is not suitable for your population group.

• DEXA scan: This method uses a low-dose X-ray machine that scans your whole body and measures the amount of fat, muscle, bone and water in your body. It can also show the distribution of fat and lean tissue in different regions of your body, such as your arms, legs, and trunk. DEXA scan is considered one of the most accurate methods to measure body composition, but it is also more expensive and less available than other methods. DEXA scan requires a referral from a doctor and is usually done in a hospital or clinic.

• Hydrostatic weighing: This method uses a large tank of water and a special scale to measure your body density. It is based on the principle that fat tissue is less dense than water, while lean tissue is more dense than water. You are first weighed on dry land and then submerged in water while sitting on a chair attached to a scale. You are asked to exhale all the air from your lungs and remain still while your underwater weight is measured. The difference between your dry weight and underwater weight allows the test administrator to calculate your body fat percentage. Hydrostatic weighing is also very accurate, but it can be uncomfortable, time-consuming, and hard to access. Hydrostatic weighing is usually done in a university or research facility.

How to Improve Body Composition
If you want to improve your body composition, you need to focus on increasing your muscle mass and decreasing your body fat. This can be achieved by making some dietary and lifestyle changes, such as:

• Eating a balanced diet: Eating a diet that provides adequate protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber can help you maintain or build muscle mass and prevent excess fat storage. Protein is especially important for muscle growth and repair, as well as for satiety and metabolism. Aim for 0.8–1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on your activity level and goals. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your muscles and brain, so don’t skimp on them. Choose complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber and nutrients, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Fats are essential for hormone production, cell membrane function, and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Choose healthy fats from sources like olive oil, avocado, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products. Avoid trans fats and limit saturated fats from processed foods, red meat, butter, and cheese.

• Controlling your calorie intake: To lose body fat, you need to create a calorie deficit, which means you burn more calories than you consume. To do this safely and effectively, you need to reduce your calorie intake by 500–1000 calories per day from your maintenance level (the amount of calories you need to maintain your current weight). This can result in a weight loss of 0.5–1 kilogram (1–2 pounds) per week. However, don’t go too low with your calories, as this can slow down your metabolism, cause muscle loss, and lead to nutrient deficiencies. Aim for at least 1200 calories per day for women and 1500 calories per day for men.

•  Increasing your physical activity: To increase your muscle mass and burn more calories, you need to engage in regular physical activity that includes both aerobic and resistance training. Aerobic exercise is any activity that increases your heart rate and breathing rate for a sustained period of time, such as walking, jogging,

cycling, swimming, or dancing. Aerobic exercise can help you burn calories, improve your cardiovascular health, and lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week, or a combination of both.

• Resistance training: This method involves using some form of resistance, such as weights, bands, or your own bodyweight, to challenge your muscles and make them stronger. Resistance training can help you increase your muscle mass, metabolism, bone density, and joint stability. It can also prevent or reverse muscle loss that occurs with aging and inactivity. Aim for at least two sessions of resistance training per week, targeting all the major muscle groups.

Summary
Body composition is the proportion of fat and lean tissue in your body. It can affect your health and fitness in various ways. Measuring your body composition can help you assess your current status and track your progress and goals. There are different methods to measure body composition, such as bioelectrical impedance, skinfold measurements, DEXA scan, and hydrostatic weighing. Each method has its advantages and limitations. To improve your body composition, you need to focus on increasing your muscle mass and decreasing your body fat. This can be achieved by eating a balanced diet, controlling your calorie intake, and increasing your physical activity that includes both aerobic and resistance training.

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