by Patricia Chaney July 26, 2021 4 min read

You might look at the number on the scale as a sign of your overall health. When you visit your doctor, they may tell you a number that represents your body mass index (BMI). While these numbers are a good starting point, they don't always provide the full picture of your current health or potential health concerns. This is where understanding the importance of body composition and associated measurements, can offer more valuable insight.

What Is Body Composition, and How Does It Compare to BMI?

BMI is a metric widely used to discuss health and weight. Essentially, it's an equation that compares your height to your weight. Body composition, on the other hand, is a more personalized metric that takes into account the levels of body fat and muscle mass giving a clearer picture of health.

How to Measure and Track BMI

BMI is a metric that has been standardized for the population. You can use a simple online calculator to input your own information, and it will calculate your BMI. A BMI between the range of 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy.

For many people with average activity levels, BMI is a decent metric to indicate whether they're at a healthy weight. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is categorized as overweight. A BMI above 25 has been associated with an increased risk of many health issues and the leading causes of mortality. A BMI over 30 is considered obese.

But BMI is not always the best measure for certain people like athletes who have a lot of muscle mass or for older adults who may have lost some muscle mass as it doesn't take these differences into account. Total body weight includes muscles, bones, body fat and fluids and can fluctuate on a daily basis, which is why it is not the only marker to consider.

How to Measure and Track Body Composition

If BMI is the relationship between height and weight, what is body composition? This metric includes body fat percentage, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. A healthy body fat percentage for men ranges between 14% and 20% and for women between 18% and 26%.

Many home and gym scales now measure body fat percentage. But if you're using one, keep in mind they're sensitive to fluid in the body and can be off by about 5%. Calipers can also be used to assess the amount of body fat in certain areas of the body, but because it's easy to measure incorrectly they can also be inconsistent and inaccurate.

Waist circumference can be used to determine whether someone is carrying excess belly fat. Measure your waist at the smallest point, which is usually just above the navel. A waist size of less than 40 inches for men and less than 35 inches for women is optimal, and associated with a lowered risk of health issues that have shown to increase above these values.

You can further understand your body composition by calculating your waist-to-hip ratio. Measure your hips at the widest point - usually the widest part of the buttocks, then divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement. A ratio above 0.85 for women or above 1.0 for men indicates a higher riskfor health issues.

How to Optimize Body Composition

If you're looking to lose fat and improve body composition, you need to start with nutrition. Focus on eating a variety of plant-based foods, high-quality protein, healthy fats and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables daily.

You'll also need to incorporate daily movement and regular exercise into your routine. Resistance training, such as lifting weights or doing body weight exercises, helps build and maintain muscle. Muscle can increase your basal metabolic rate or the number of calories you burn to maintain normal body functions. Don't be dissuaded by the myth that muscle weighs more than fat, or that lifting will make you bigger. The average person weight training two or three days per week won't get bulky. You'll need a specifically tailored exercise and nutrition plan if you want to build large muscles.

Aerobic exercise is important for cardiovascular fitness and can help facilitate weight loss. Excessive amounts of cardio without resistance training can cause the body to break down muscle tissue and reduce muscle mass over time. Incorporating a combination of resistance workouts alongside cardio and restorative practices like yoga and stretching can provide a good balance and optimize body composition.

The final piece is sleep. Adequate sleep contributes to building and maintaining muscle mass. Research has found that if you don't get enough sleep, you may be working against your diet and exercise efforts. Along with your meal plan and exercise routine, establish a sleep routine from the beginning.

Being at a healthy body weight is a great way to decrease your overall risk of health issues with whole food nutrition and complimentary lifestyle choices. If you're looking to stay on top of your health, understanding your BMI and keeping track of all your body composition markers is important.

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