How do you measure up? Part one

There are lots of ways to measure success in our world: job status, income, the car you drive, the home you own, even the accomplishments of your kids. None of those matter much to me (though of course, I wouldn’t mind making a little cash for what I do, and I hope my kids end up happy). The stats I’m used to scoring involve a tape measure, calipers, a sit-and-reach box and you, on the floor knocking out some push-ups.


If you’re using the new year as an opportunity to take stock of how you measure up, and set some goals to improve, here’s what you should keep in mind.


This is the probably the most common benchmark people use when judging their happiness fitness. The whole idea of, “If I could just loose those pesky 10lbs.” It’s important to know your weight, and regularly stepping on the scale is a great motivator, both for weight loss and maintenance. However, weight doesn’t tell the whole story, or even the most important one. And a “healthy” weight doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthy body. So know your number, but don’t live and die by the scale.

Body Composition

This number is much more telling than straight poundage. Expressed as a percentage of body fat, body composition tells you how much of your total weight is made up lean tissue (such as muscle), and how much is fat. A slender frame is not always an indicator of low body fat, either. If you’re naturally thin, but never lift anything heavier than a wine bottle, it’s likely you’ll score a higher than healthy level of body fat.

So what is an ideal number? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) gives these general guidelines: a range of 10%-22% for men and 20%-32% for women is considered satisfactory for health. If you are Lance Armstrong-fit, you may fall below the lower end, and to some degree that’s ok, but most people are more concerned with the upper threshold. Something else to note; if you are closer to 70-years-old than 40-years-old, your percentage may creep up a little, as muscle mass naturally declines with age.

Body composition is measured in a variety of ways, some more accurate than others. As a fitness professional who has measured body fat numerous times, using different methods, I’m not as concerned about perfect accuracy as I am about a general trend. Sure, using calipers may give a more accurate number than a hand-held bioelectric impedance, but a couple of percentage points does not make that big of a difference in how I interpret the results.

Here’s an image of body fat measurement using calipers:


Here’s what a hand-held bioelectric impedance looks like:


Can you tell I think knowing your body fat is important?

If weight-loss is your ultimate goal, start by getting a good measure of body fat. I guarantee, if your body fat percentage goes down, you will eventually lose weight too. Plus, you’ll look more lean, fit and toned in the process.

Body Mass Index

Abbreviated BMI, body mass index is another very common way to measure health/fitness. Developed as a way to measure large quantities of people (such as school kids), BMI assess weight relative to height. According to ACSM, obesity-related health problems increase beyond a BMI of 25.

You will find BMI calculators all over the internet, and the media often talks about BMI as an effective tool to gauge health and fitness. Some gyms will calculate your BMI for you too. It’s fast, easy and requires no real skills. It’s also a totally crappy way to measure fitness. In my opinion, of course.

BMI fails to distinguish between lean tissue, bone and body fat, and there is a significant standard of error in estimating body fat from BMI. In the context of a fitness assessment provided at a gym, I would throw BMI out the window.


In recent years, the distribution of body fat has become just as important as how much of it you have. Numerous studies have shown that an excess of abdominal fat indicates an increased risk for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease and premature death. So although having a little too much junk in the trunk may cause you distress while jeans-shopping, it’s a lot healthier for your heart.

The ACSM categorizes risk for abdominal measurements as follows:

                 women                                       men

very low           <28.5″                                       <31.5″

low                   28.5-35″                                    31.5-39″

high                 35.5-43″                                     39.5-47″

very high         >43.5″                                         >47″

While not quite as specific as body fat measurement, abdominal circumference tells an important story. Plus, if you’ve got a tape measure, it’s accessible to you. Want to measure your own belly? Find a tape measure, and wrap it around you right at the level of your belly button, which should be where your tummy sticks out the most. Make sure you wrap the tape measure loosely, taking care not to squeeze or squish.

Whew. I intended this to be a quickie post, and it blossomed into a two-parter! Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the fitness side of measurements. Stuff like VO2 max, muscle strength and endurance, and flexibility.

Btw, while I explained how you can do some of these measurements on your own (BMI, circumferences, even body fat via a bioelectric impedance can be done at home if you have a scale that does it), most gyms offer some kind of new member (or old member who has never done it) assessment that includes one or more of these methods.


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