Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 29, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on March 29, 2017.
Technological advances have made methods for measuring body composition more accurate and more accessible than ever. However, there are still people who insist on sticking with “tried and true methods” like body weight and BMI as their guide to gauge health. If you are focused on short-term goals like losing 5-10 pounds of your body weight and don’t care if that’s fat or muscle, then just using a scale may be good enough. But if you are serious about improving your health and achieving long-term outcomes, using an accurate method to measure your body composition can increase your success.
Testing your body composition offers you a glimpse of what your existing body weight is made up of. After all, it’s not about a number on a scale or your weight’s relationship to your age or height. It’s more important to learn how much of your body weight is made up of fat, water, bones, and muscle.
To help you get motivated, here are five big things you stand to gain by taking your body composition seriously.
Big Gain #1: You reduce your cardiometabolic risk.
Measuring your body composition values is far better for accurately distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy body weight, than BMI, because of its ability to differentiate between lean body mass and fat mass.
This is important when it comes to understanding your cardiometabolic risk. Cardiometabolic risk refers to your chance of developing the following health conditions: diabetes, heart disease, or stroke.
In a study of 12,386 normal-weight Korean adults, the researchers found that having high body fat percentage is associated with increased cardiometabolic risks (i.e., high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels).
In addition, it turns out that percent body fat is a better screening tool in the prediction of cardiovascular disease —a collective term for disorders of the heart and blood vessels that increase your likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes.
Measuring your body composition can help you understand your risk of developing serious conditions – like cardiometabolic diseases – so you can take actions before symptoms start affecting your quality of life.
What This Means For You
Even if you are within WHO recommended normal body weight ranges, your body fat percentage is likely a better indicator of whether you will develop cardiometabolic conditions later in life.
For the subjects, as far as they knew, they were doing just fine. Their body weights suggested that they were within a healthy weight range and had no reason to suspect that they were at risk for excess fat mass storage. This is why it’s crucial to monitor your body composition as soon as you can — it reveals these silent risks and helps prevent or reduce the likelihood of them happening. Without taking a deeper look into your body, it’s impossible to know about these potential risks or complications.
If you’re curious about the normal body fat percentage levels, here is a good general guideline:
For men: 10-20%For women: 18-28%
Big Gain #2: You reduce your chances of suffering from issues associated with high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is fat cells found in your blood. While cholesterol is an essential part of healthy cells, when you have high cholesterol deposits formed in your veins it increases your cardiometabolic risk – like stroke and heart disease.
In a research study published by the Mayo Clinic last year, the recommended body fat percentage range is associated with increased good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL). By increasing HDL, the harmful cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) levels are significantly reduced.
What This Means for You
The relationship between cholesterol and body fat percentage levels implies that most people can worry less about artery-clogging cholesterol in your bloodstream if your body fat percentage is within normal range.
As we wrote in an interpretation of the Mayo Clinic study last year, aiming for a body fat percentage that does not exceed 20% for men and 28% for women can significantly reduce your risk of suffering from issues associated with elevated cholesterol.
Big Gain #3: You’ll be able to recognize the symptoms of pre-diabetes early.
Recognizing what you’re made of in terms of fat, muscle, water, and bones are beneficial if you want to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Like many diseases, the key is early detection. The issue is that the symptoms of this chronic disease can be so mild, most people don’t notice problems until years of long-term damage.
In a study of 4,828 subjects aged between 18-80 years in Spain, it was found out that body fat percentage was significantly higher in men and women (with normal BMI) with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes than those with normal blood sugar levels.
What This Means For You
Like the aforementioned findings on the relationship between body fat percentage and heart disease/high cholesterol levels, you cannot rely on BMI alone in finding out if you’re specifically predisposed to diabetes.
In their conclusion, the researchers pointed out that body fat percentage assessment is more helpful in diagnosing impaired glucose tolerance( or pre-diabetes) than BMI and waist circumference measurements combined.
But don’t forget the importance of muscle. In the September Issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, research attempted to see how muscle mass affected insulin resistance, an early warning sign of diabetes. They found that for every 10% increase in muscle mass, there was a corresponding 12% reduction in pre-diabetes.
Big Gain #4: You reduce your chances of premature death.
Substantial findings from a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed that a higher body fat percentage is associated with higher all-cause mortality (death), regardless of BMI.
In addition, another study found both fat mass and lean body mass, not just body fat percentage, to be independent predictors of all-cause mortality for both men and women, even after adjusting for health factors like age and smoking history.
What This Means For You
The numbers on the scale and your BMI say little when it comes to your overall health. You need to rely on a more accurate method of measuring your body composition – both fat mass and lean body mass – in order to monitor your health risk, and improving your chances of living a long life.
Big Gain #5: You’ll increase your physical fitness and be more likely to improve your body composition.
Instead of obsessing over your body weight or BMI for enhanced sports performance and better recovery, the American College of Sports Medicine advocates for tracking body composition.
Tracking your body composition regularly and aiming for a healthy balance of muscle and fat has been shown to help boost endurance and shorten recovery periods from exercise.
Published in the Physiology & Behavior Journal last year, a Spanish study carried out on 1,389 adolescents concluded: boys and girls with a higher body fat percentage have lower cardio-respiratory fitness and muscular endurance than those with low body fat levels.
Another study found that individuals with high body fat percentages have a slower recovery in lactate levels. It’s worth noting that individuals with higher lactate threshold levels tend to experience delayed onset of muscle fatigue during exercise and are able to exercise for a longer duration and at a higher intensity.
What This Means For You
Whether you want to swim farther or increase your kettlebell weight on your next workout, you can give your stamina a boost (and enjoy shorter recovery periods, too) by reducing your fat mass and increasing your lean body mass.
Take that First Small Step that Changes Everything
These are just a few of the many health benefits you stand to gain by measuring and tracking your body composition. The information you receive from a body composition test can help you design a plan that makes sense for your life, and make the necessary adjustments to enable you to accomplish your goal.
If you want to learn more on the impact of body composition to your overall health and wellness, check out these recommended readings:
Why You Need to Know Your Body Fat PercentageWhy Tracking Changes in Body Composition Leads to ResultsWhy Your Body Composition is the Key to Your Health in 2017
*** Kyjean Tomboc is a nurse turned freelance healthcare copywriter and UX researcher. After experimenting with going paleo and vegetarian, she realized that it all boils down to eating real food.