What Is The Most Accurate Way To Measure Body Fat?
When it comes to monitoring body fat, the scale leaves a lot to be desired. Weight alone doesn’t indicate fitness — the needle moves for fat and muscle alike. Even for those not battling the bulge, body fat testing can be a nifty way to measure training progress and overall body composition. But not all methods measure up. Read on to learn about the madness behind the measurement — and whether it's worth the trouble at all.
The "Biggest" (Most Inconvenient) and "Best" (Most Expensive) Methods
Researchers have debated the ideal way to measure body fat for years, testing, comparing, and refining formulas all to determine the best approach. For the general public, however, it will likely come down to availability — most people will simply have to use whichever of these systems is closest to them (that is, unless they want ).And since most body fat testing formulas are based on regression models, the further a subject is from an average height and weight — often young individuals of average weight — the less accurate their results will tend to be.
It’s All Water Weight — Hydrostatic Weighing
Hydrostatic weighing is one of the oldest methods still in use, tracing its roots back to the principals . People sit atop a scale that’s dunked in water, and their weight (dry and submerged) plus the amount of water splashed out is used to calculate their body's density. From there, fancy formulas are used to estimate body fat. Unfortunately, all of this can be thrown off by natural differences in bone density, hydration level, or the air left in those water-wings we call lungsValidity of methods of body composition assessment in young and older men and women. J Clasey, J Kanaley, L Wideman, et al. Department of Internal Medicine, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22908, USA. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1999 May;86(5):1728-38..
Fat Analysis Is a Breeze — Air Displacement Plethysmography
Enter the Bod Pod. This device also uses Archimedes’ Principle, but with air rather than water (this makes things considerably more simple though not necessarily more accurate). Instead of exhaling all the air in your lungs and plunging into a carnival-esque dunk tank, there’s just some skimpy clothing, a 15 minute time commitment, and anywhere from a to fee — assuming you can find a facility that owns one of these pricey machines on (or… a ).
Only Skin Deep – Duel Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry
Ease of use has contributed to the Bod Pod’s popularity, but for researchers it’s been gradually replaced by DEXA scans, generally regarded as the most dependable method for measuring body fat (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry, for those who want to sound official). While DEXA isn’t without its problems (there’s variability between machines, and a scan can cost 0 or more), it’s generally thought to be at least as accurate as a Bod Pod and has the added benefit of being able to identify where fat is deposited in the bodyComparative assessment of change in fat mass using dual X-ray absorptiometry and air-displacement plethysmography. J Warolin, LE Whitaker, and L Choi. Department of Pediatrics, Division of Gastroenterology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Clinical Obesity. 2012 Jun 1;2(3-4):66-72. Epub 2012 Jun 21.Asian women have greater abdominal and visceral adiposity than Caucasian women with similar body mass index. U Lim, T Ernst, and S Buchthal. Epidemiology Program, University of Hawaii Cancer Center, Honolulu, HI, USA. Nutrition &Diabetes.2011May;1(5):e6..
Everymethodhasitsdrawbacks,butwhatadvantagedoessomebodyhaveknowingtheirtruebodyfatpercentageanyway?Solongasthere’simprovementonthefield,track,scale,orweightroomwithoutanoticeablelossofmuscle/additionoffat,that’sprobablypositiveprogress.Researchindicatesthatpeoplearenotoriouslybadatgaugingtheirownbodycomposition,but,boththeaestheticallyandathleticallymindedcangetaprettygoodHeightandWeightBias:TheInfluenceofTime.FShiely,KHayes,IJPerry,etal.DepartmentofEpidemiologyandPublicHealth,UniversityCollegeCork,CorkCity,Ireland.PLoSOne.2013;8(1):e54386. Epub 2013 Jan 23.. But with plenty of variability in body fat testing, it's usually best to put more energy into exercise and diet than measuring every little inch.
Special thanks to for his help with this article.
Do you think it's worth getting your body fat tested? What's your favorite method? Let us know in the comments below!
Video: How to Correctly Measure Your Body and Track Progress
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