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Finding effective alternatives to the scale

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I’ve written about the evils of the scale before. Today’s column is about all the different ways you can measure your progress in health, fitness and body composition, without ever getting on a scale.

The problem, of course, with using simple body weight as a measure of progress, is that it is simply not a good indicator of true health, fitness, or even body composition. Many doctors still use a combination of height and body weight, or BMI, which is only slightly more useful than using simple body weight. This provides virtually no useful information for healthcare or fitness professionals. It doesn’t tell us how fit someone is, and doesn’t even help us predict risk of death or disease.

Body composition is a better indication of long-term health as it takes muscle mass into consideration. The most common and least expensive way to estimate body composition is bioelectric impedance. It works by measuring the speed of an electric current going through the body. You can buy a bioimpedance body composition scale at any department store. Although it is easy to find and inexpensive it can be quite inaccurate. A person’s hydration, stomach and bladder contents can dramatically change the results. For this reason I don’t recommend this method.

Hydrostatic, or underwater weighing, has historically been the gold standard for measuring body composition. The idea is to measure water displacement based on the Archimedes principle. The Bod Pod uses a similar concept but measures air displacement instead of water displacement. Both methods are quite accurate in most situations, but are not readily accessible to the general population and harder to use on a regular basis to measure progress over time.

The new gold standard is the DEXA scan, or Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry scan. This is essentially an X-ray machine that was traditionally used to measure bone density. However, it can measure the body’s fat mass, bone mass and lean body mass, so it is extremely accurate.

Like the hydrostatic weighing method however, it can be difficult and expensive to access, usually only found at universities and research facilities. For this reason it is not ideally suited for repeated measurements geared toward tracking progress over time.

Taking skinfold measurements is another common way to estimate body fat. Skinfold calipers are used to measure the thickness of folds of subcutaneous fat and the measures are then used to provide an estimated body fat percentage. The accuracy of this method depends on the skill and experience of the person doing the measurements. This method is inexpensive and accessible at many gyms and clinics. If you can get measured by the same person regularly, it can be a good option when working with a trainer.

Last but not least, here is my favourite way to track progress. First, take a photo of yourself from the back, side and front. Then take a tape measure and measure around your waist and hips. Third, test how many pull-ups, pushups or burpees you can do in one minute. It’s free, it only takes a few minutes and it’s a great way to see if what you are doing in the kitchen and the gym is making you look better, feel better and perform better.

Tania Tetrault Vrga is owner and head trainer at CrossFit Winnipeg. Send questions to her at www.crossfitwinnipeg.com.

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