The average exerciser is preoccupied with how much they weigh, and exercise in the hope that they’ll get lighter. Perhaps if your goal is to get leaner and healthier, you shouldn’t be fixated on your weight. You should be concerned with your body proportions and body-fat level.
Many exercise programs hoping to achieve thinness are based on popular misconceptions about body weight and body composition, rather than basic physiology.
Leanness refers to ratio between the muscles and bone and the fat of your body. Although some lean individuals may actually weigh more than their desirable “body weight”, their low level of body fat lessens the risk of health problems and helps them stay fit.
Being fat is a serious health risk. Some associated problems are hypertension, elevated blood lipids (fats and cholesterol), diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, respiratory dysfunction, gallbladder disease, and some joint diseases.
Thinness refers to the size of the different parts of your body, called “body girths”. Being thin does not necessarily reduce your health risk, and obsession with becoming thin can lead to serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
You can be thin without necessarily being lean. If you don’t exercise regularly, you can have little muscle mass to provide bulk, and still have large layers of fat. You look thin, but are fat.
You can also be heavy without necessarily being fat. Muscle tissue is heavier or denser than fat tissue. If you start an exercise program, you’ll increase the amount of muscle mass and the density of your bones at the same time as you are getting leaner. Your weight loss will sometimes plateau if your gains in muscle mass are greater than your losses of body fat.
The most reliable way of measuring changes in body-fat levels are to measure the thickness of the fat located in “depots” directly under the skin (subcutaneous fat). When these skin-folds are taken, a higher reading indicates a greater amount of fat stored beneath the skin, and a low reading indicates a low level of body fat.
Some research shows that excessive accumulation of fat at specific body sites may create a health risk. For instance, it appears that extra fat around the abdomen and waist is associated with a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hyperlipemia. Pear-shaped people (narrow waist-big hips) are better off than apple-shaped people (big waist-narrow hips).
Your body proportions are a reflection of all the factors we’ve discussed. If a male gets fat they’ll tend to get a pot gut and look out of proportion. A female with heavy legs and thin arms looks out of proportion.
These acceptable body proportions don’t relate to anything to do with your health or fitness. They are merely social trends of what is and is not acceptable. If you have, a good fitness instructor to give you the right advice, you can decrease your level of body fat and change the bulk of specific muscles to attain a “better” body shape.
Our fat male with the pot gut can undertake aerobic exercise to reduce his body-fat levels, and perhaps undertake some body-building exercises for his arms and legs to give him a better shape.
Our bottom heavy female can also undertake some aerobic exercise to get leaner, and can also undertake some body-building, but this time only on the upper limbs. She will gain a better body shape naturally, without resorting to huge shoulder pads.
For a home fitness assessment you’ll have to be content with measuring your body shape and size, using girth measurements. Girth measurements are the best way of checking that the changes your body undergoes as it adapts to different exercise demands are meeting your goals.
Girths are best used in conjunction with skinfold measures to assess increases in body size from muscle building programs.
Celia is a health writer and has a fitness blog to share fitness and exercise tips for beginners.