Health: Your Body Composition


As a former musician, when I hear the word “composition” I think of the famous 4-note theme of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. As a personal trainer, I think of an important component of overall health: body composition. Body composition lets us divide our overall weight into two categories, lean body mass and body fat. If you are carrying too much body fat, you are likely to end up with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, or a host of other health problems. The farther away you are from normal or average, the higher your chances of serious health issues, including muscular skeletal problems. Most of us simply get on a scale, see what numbers come up and use that as a basis for whether or not we are at a healthy weight. It is not that simple.

In assessing body composition, we try to discern between lean body mass (your bones, internal organs, blood, water, muscle, skin) and fat. Getting on a scale may tell us how much the whole combination weighs, however, assessing which percentage is fat and which is lean body mass tells us much more about your health risks. Even the location of fat is related to health risks. For instance, abdominal fat is linked to heart disease, poor lipid profiles and type 2 diabetes. Because abdominal fat is more mobile it enters the circulation more readily to form arterial plaques. The optimal body fat percentage of a male is about 16% and for a female about 23%. A man should not exceed the 23% threshold and a woman should not go over 31%. The easiest way to know if you are losing body fat is by how your clothes fit you. If you need to tighten your belt or you drop a dress size, even though there is little or no change on your scale, you are losing body fat.

In the mid 1980s, the medical community developed the BMI or Body Mass Index. The BMI compares one’s weight to one’s height and is very easy to calculate, which is one of the reasons it is so popular amongst doctors. On this particular open-ended index, one needs to be between 20-24 to be considered healthy and to keep a minimal risk for future health problems due to overweight. 25-28 is a borderline reading and anything above 28 is considered dangerous. Obviously, the higher you are on the index, the more at-risk you are for illness. The main drawbacks of the BMI is that is doesn’t take into account body composition, only one’s height and weight. It doesn’t address fat location, or for someone who works out with weights, their reading can be a false high. On the other hand, taller people carrying a lot of fat may have a BMI that falls within the normal range, which does not indicate that they are carrying too much fat.

These days, most experts are turning away from the BMI. One of the preferred measures being used is the hip to waist ratio. Both are measured at the point of greatest circumference. A man whose waist-hip ratio exceeds 0.95 and a woman whose ratio is greater than 0.8 are considered to be a greater risk. Another newer method of assessing your weight in regards to your health is the waist-height ratio. Your weight needs to be less than half your height.

The most widely used measurement is the skinfold measuring procedure. Using a caliper, skinfold measurements are taken at various locations on the body several times. After taking an average at each location, the numbers are plugged into a formula and your percentage of body fat is calculated. It is considered to be an accurate measure with only a 3% margin of error.

Hydrostatic weighing is considered the gold standard as far as accuracy in determining body fat. This test is usually administered at research institutes and involves being weighed while you are in a pool of water. Bioelectrical impedance is relatively new. You stand on the device, which looks like a bathroom scale and a low dose of electricity is sent up one leg and down another. The resistance to the current is measured. The more body fat you have, the higher the resistance.

Whichever way you choose to have your body fat measured, it is important information to know. By knowing exactly how much fat you are carrying vis-a-vis lean body mass, you can commit to an active lifestyle, a consistent exercise program and good, healthful eating. Keeping the amount of body fat at normal levels can “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a LIFESTYLE FITNESS COACH with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! along with Linda Holtz M.Sc. and is available for private consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at Check out the Lose It! web site – US Line: 516-568-5027