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The Importance of Body Composition and Percent of Body Fat
I n recent years, the measurement of percent of body fat has become widely used and recommended as one of the indicators of fitness. By monitoring percent of body fat and weight regularly, there are many things a person can learn about their fitness and any changes in fitness as time progresses, that cannot be learned by weighing with a scale alone. Later in this section I will tell you how to measure percent of body fat, but first I will explain it and tell about the many benefits obtained by monitoring body fat.
Perhaps the most important single thing the monitoring of percent of body fat will do is determine changes in muscle tissue over time. By knowing percent of body fat, the percent of muscle, bone, organs, etc. can also be determined. For example, if a person has 20 percent body fat and weighs 135 pounds, then 27 pounds of this is fat. Everything else, which is sometimes referred to as the "lean mass" is 80 percent of their weight or 108 pounds. Of this lean mass, the component that can change the most is muscle tissue. Therefore, if a person monitors their change in percent of body fat and weight, they can also determine their change in muscle tissue. Muscle tissue can increase or decrease depending on a persons diet, activities, exercise, and lifestyle.
Recent research has shown several interesting things about body composition and muscle tissue. One major study has shown that the typical American loses muscle tissue and gains fat steadily from about age 20 on. The study shows that even people of standard weight, who maintain their same weight as they grow older, still gain fat and lose muscle tissue. A study by Brozek and Keys of a large group of men showed the following changes in percent of fat with age of people of standard weight. That is, people who maintained their correct weight per height-weight charts.
What this shows is that a person who weighs, for example, 160 pounds at age 20 has 16 pounds of fat (10.3 percent) and 144 pounds of everything else (bones, muscle, organs, etc.). But at age 55, this same person who still weighs 160 pounds has 40 pounds of fat (25 percent) and 120 pounds of everything else. Since muscle tissue is the component of the "lean mass" that changes the most, this means that from age 20 to age 55, this person has lost 24 pounds of muscle g tissue and replaced it with a gain of 24 pounds of fat. Even though this person weighs the same at 55 as he did at 20, his body has deteriorated substantially. The example is given for a man, but exactly the same thing happens to women.
This deterioration did not have to happen to this person. It is due to the typical American lifestyle. It has been shown that those who exercise regularly, along with a proper diet, do not lose muscle tissue or gain fat. In fact, even at age 50 and above, it is possible to build muscle tissue back up and regain the correct balance between muscle, fat, and weight. All that is necessary is the proper exercise, supplementation and diet program.
It is important to note that the deterioration starts early. Even by the age of 25, the typical American has lost 3 percent of their total body weight in muscle tissue and replaced it with a corresponding increase in the percent of body fat. And this is just for those who maintain their correct weight. For those whose weight increase, the situation is worse because almost all of the weight increase is fat. If a person monitors their percent of body fat regularly, they can detect muscle loss early on and take corrective action before serious changes take place.
Another very important use of the percent of body fat measurements is to monitor the effect of diet and/or exercise on muscle tissue and fat. For example, research has shown that when a person goes on a typical fad diet, with little exercise, they lose as much or more muscle tissue than fat. (Scales will not tell a person this is happening, but measuring the percent of body fat regularly will.) Then, if this person goes off the diet and gains the weight back, they gain more fat back than they lost and less muscle tissue than they lost. The result is that they have more fat and less muscle tissue than before the down-up cycle and are worse off than before the diet. Again, measuring the percent of body fat will show this whereas scales will not.
Of course, the way to reduce properly is through lots of exercise combined with a proper well-balanced diet. In this way it is possible for a person to actually gain muscle tissue while losing fat. Measuring the percent of body fat regularly will determine the effectiveness of the exercise-diet program being used.
There are many other things measuring the percent of body fat can show. For example, a person who is much too lean, particularly women, may not realize this and the scales will not tell them. There are studies which indicate it is harmful for women to drop below 10 to 12 percent body fat. And, of course, we all know the problem of Anorexic girls and women who did not realize, or refuse to believe, they are much too lean. Regular monitoring of the percent of body fat will show graphically and accurately that they are too lean and are also losing muscle and organ tissue with their inadequate nutrition intake. Positive proof of this through the percent of body fat measurements might help convince them that they need a better diet, higher in calories and nutrition.
Another use for the percent of body fat measurements concerns a much more common situation. This is the person who is the correct weight according to a height-weight chart or even underweight according to these charts. They may also look reasonably fit when they look in a mirror and may think they are just fine. And yet, if they measure their percent of body fat they may find they have too much fat. Their small, under- developed, probably little-used muscles account for their light weight. The percent of body fat measurements will show them they are over fat and under muscled and they will realize they need to go on an exercise program to replace fat with muscle.
And yet another possibility is a very strong, muscular, athletic person. They may have a weight considerably above what a height-weight chart would say they should have. If they believe the chart they may think they have to lose weight. This person might actually be very lean and if they were to go on a diet and lose weight almost all the loss would be muscle tissue. Measuring the percent of body fat would reveal this situation and show the person they were lean and that the extra weight was muscle and possibly even stronger bones which have a higher density. A scale cannot give this information. Only the percent of body fat measurements will show this.
A typical situation that exists when someone starts on a good exercise program combined with proper nutrition is that they find their weight is not changing even after several months. They may get discouraged and give it up, thinking their new regimen is not doing them any good. However, if they measured their percent of body fat regularly they would find they were replacing fat with muscle and, in fact, benefiting themselves greatly. Thus, rather than becoming discouraged, they would be encouraged to continue.
Now that the importance of the percent of body fat measurements has been explained, we come to the question of how to measure it. There are two primary methods in use today. One is underwater weighing and the other is Skinfold Caliper measurements. Both are accurate. Underwater weighing tends to be more accurate than Skinfold Calipers for people above 40 percent body fat. For people in the 15 to 40 percent range, Skinfold Calipers and underwater weighing are about equal in accuracy. For people less than 15 percent body fat, underwater weighing becomes progressively less accurate and can be seriously in error for very lean people. Skinfold Calipers are the most accurate method for people below 15 percent body fat. There are several other methods such as circumference measurements, but none are accurate and only provide an approximation.
Underwater weighing is impractical for most people and is generally only used in large facilities such as schools and hospitals. Skinfold Calipers are then the obvious answer for most applications. They are accurate and easy to use and can also be used in the home.
What is the correct or ideal percent of body fat? This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. Not all people have the same ideal percent of body fat. It varies with age and sex, and one person might be better at a higher or lower percent of body fat than another person of the same age and sex. And the desirable body fat of athletes can vary depending on the sport. For example, swimmers seem to perform at a higher percent of body fat than runners. But, some general guidelines and ranges can be given that are applicable to the vast majority.
For men up to about age 30, 9 to 15 percent is good. From age 30 to 50, 11 to 17 percent is a good range and from age 50 and up, 12 to 19 percent. A person should try to stay below the upper limits given and a person at the lower limit would be described as lean.
For women, the range up to age 30 is 14 to 21 percent, from 30 to 50, 15 to 23 percent, and from 50 up it is 16 to 25 percent. Again, it is desirable to be below the upper limit, and a woman near the lower limit would be lean.
The percent of body fat obtained by underwater weighing or skinfold calipers includes total body fat, not just that under the skin. In addition to the fat under the skin all people have internal fat, around organs, etc. A certain amount of fat is necessary for health and body functioning, sometimes referred to as essential fat. Many people, particularly women, try to get too lean. It is generally agreed that this is not healthy, and, in many cases can actually cause harm. Women should not try to get below the minimums given above.
It should be noted that the ranges given above are not the averages for the U.S. population, but are the desirable ranges. The actual averages for the population as a whole are much higher because of the large number of people with the percent of body fat well above the upper limit of the desirable ranges. Acceptably accurate, low priced Skin fold Calipers with instructions for use can be obtained from our
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