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Why and How to Properly Measure Body Fat

Unless you live under a rock, you have heard that obesity puts you at risk for life-threatening diseases and medical conditions. Let’s examine the word obesity for a moment. It comes from the French word obésité or the Latin obesitas; both of which mean fatness. The Medical Dictionary defines it as “The condition of being obese; increased body weight caused by the excessive accumulation of fat.” In other words, what the number on your bathroom scale tells you does not determine whether you are obese or not unless you have a high percentage of body fat to go along with it.

Body Fat

Your body stores fat in one of two places; under the skin or around and in between your organs. Fat that has been deposited around your organs, called visceral fat, is more detrimental to your health than fat just under the skin, known as subcutaneous fat. It is also harder to lose. People who have a lot of fat around the belly area have a higher percentage of visceral fat. They are at a higher risk to develop diabetes type II, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. This is why it is important to know what percentage of your body composition is fat.

BMI Charts

There is much debate about the accuracy of Body Mass Index (BMI) charts. These charts use a formula comparing a person’s weight to his or her height. People against them use the argument that a body builder could have the same measurements as a sumo wrestler; giving them the same BMI. The body builder obviously has much less body fat than the sumo wrestler.

Medical experts agree that the charts are not absolute, but are a good starting place for someone concerned about his or her body composition and health. To figure your BMI without a chart, multiply your height in inches by itself. Divide that result into your weight in pounds and multiply the answer by 703. For example, a woman weighing 155 pounds who is 65 inches tall would do the following:

65 x 65 = 4225

155/4225 = .0367

.0367 x 703 = 25.79

If the woman is a fit athlete, this BMI would not be very accurate. If, however, she was your average person, it would be a good indication of her actual BMI. It should be noted, the only way to be absolutely sure of your body composition is to have an autopsy.

Skin Caliper Test

The most common and easily accessible tool for determining the percentage of fat in your body is the skinfold caliper. Use metal calipers instead of plastic one and take measurements at four different locations. It is best if you have a friend perform the measuring.

To measure, pull the skin and underlying fat away from the area, place the calipers on the fat fold and tighten the jaws so they hold the fat but will move slightly after a second. Take the reading before releasing any pressure.

The four spots to take a reading include:

  • The back of the arm, midway between the shoulder and elbow. This fold should be vertical, straight up and down.
  • The front of the arm, midway between the shoulder and elbow. This fold, too, is straight up and down.
  • The back, just below a shoulder blade. This fold is taken at a 45 degree angle, parallel to the edge of the shoulder blade.
  • The waist, just above and in front of the hip bone. This fold is done horizontally.

Add the sum of all four readings and use a skin caliper chart to find your body fat percentage.

While there are other, more accurate ways of determining body composition, they require a doctor and medical equipment. A skin caliper test will give you a good indication of how much body fat you have even if you are an athlete in training. There are very few reasons you need to have an exact number for the amount of fat you have in your body. The important part is to understand when you are putting yourself at risk for serious health issues and start to take control of the situation.

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