My height is 165 cm.
My weight is 70kgs.
My body fat is 24%.
My BMI is overweight.
There seems to be measurements available for everything. To determine our health, our fitness, you can get every aspect of your body and your ability measured. What does it all mean?
I’m just above average height for a woman in Australia (161.8cm). I’m about average weight for a woman in Australia (71.1kg). Australia is getting taller and heavier over time. Does that mean we are becoming lazier? Does that mean our diets are our downfall? Seeing as I sit as a pretty average Australian woman, with a BMI that proclaims I am overweight, what does that mean about me? Am I lazy? Is my diet poor? What about those pesky genes people blame?
I went in for a DEXA scan, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A complete picture of my body composition, the weight and density of my bones, the distribution of my body fat, the weight of my lean muscle, would it help me or hinder me to know? Would it encourage me to make changes if necessary or is it just another measurement collected in this whole process with which I do nothing? One way to find out.
I must say, I was not impressed with my experience getting this scan. After my scan was completed, I was then explained the results. My bones are heavy and dense, well that’s good. I have a significant amount of lean muscle, 70% of my body, which suggests a genetic predisposition to muscle building, again, sounds good. My body fat is at 24%. I had no idea what that meant as I hadn’t really looked into it, but no worries, my “specialist” was about to explain. After telling me that BMI was an unreliable measure and that we shouldn’t pay attention to it as it tells a limited story (fair enough, indeed), he then told me my BMI, and that I was considered overweight… Now, lets look at your body fat distribution and percentage. This is what he spent the next 30 minutes on. I felt like I was incredibly obese. I felt like I was unhealthy and on the verge of an early death because of my body fat. He told me that my ideal weight was 61kgs, my ideal body fat percentage would be 19%, and if I ate organic and clean, and came back in a couple of months we’d know if I was losing fat or muscle. This would take me 18 weeks to lose close to 10kgs. He even grabbed out his replicas of 0.5kg and 1kg of fat to demonstrate to me the severity of the situation.
I walked out feeling pretty down on myself. Twenty four percent, that sounded huge, I mean that’s a quarter of my weight! I was thinking that perhaps that extra 5% of body fat was why I am not performing well cycling? Perhaps it was that 5% that was making me one of the last to complete a climb, one of the last to finish a race. Could that be true? And was I seriously overweight? I knew my BMI said I was but I try to ignore that, it’s not a reliable measure. But here was a body composition expert telling me that I should be 10kgs lighter.
I decided to look into it a bit more. I spoke to a couple of friends who were open enough to share their measurements with me and what it meant to them. I looked up tables of bf% and discovered something. I wasn’t obese, I wasn’t overweight, my body fat percentage indicated that I was in the athletic range, the ideal range, the healthy range for my age. So why the heck did that guy make me feel so bad? Why does he expect that I want to be lean?
So does that extra 5% slow me down? One of the incredible racers I know sits at 28.5%bf. Does that mean she’s overweight? Does that mean she’s the last up a climb or the last to cross the finish line at a race? No, in fact she often podiums, not just in second or third, but first place. She doesn’t have the lean body of an elite racer that most likely sits at 14 to 20%, she has a normal body, she is elite, she is an athlete, and she is achieving incredibly. She has strength, endurance, skills, and that measure of body fat doesn’t stop that. So, in reality, my measure of body fat isn’t the reason I’m not as strong as I could be, not as fast as I could be. Yes, getting leaner can help, of course, but it’s not the only way to improve and it’s not the only important measure.
So, what could be better measures of my health and fitness? What are better benchmarks that can help my training?
Regular assessments of my cycling. Riding segments every couple of months and seeing how my times and comfort changes over time. This applies to running, to weight lifting, to swimming – revisiting things and seeing how much quicker you are, how much stronger you are, and allowing yourself to identify potential areas of weakness. Leaving spaces in between allows you to appreciate the changes, as riding the same segment day to day it gets hard to notice your improvement.
Functional threshold power. This tells me how much power I am getting from my legs and is a useful training tool, with most professional cyclists training to their power thresholds.
I guess what I’m trying to say is forget about the scales. I’m trying to say forget about how fat or thin you are. Instead, focus on what is more important and relevant to your health and fitness. Focus on training regularly so you can run faster, lift heavier, ride harder. Focus on taking appropriate rest. Focus on your diet so you can fuel your body better, to allow that engine to burn bright throughout life, not just during races, and to recover and grow. Focus on how you feel about yourself, your mental health, and put those body shaming magazines to the side.
A six pack doesn’t mean you’re fit. A toned body doesn’t mean you’re fast. Just like a bit of extra body fat doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy. There is no need for so much judgement. By all means, get measurements if you are curious, if you want those kinds of bench marks, if you are shaping your body on the outside for a surface contest such as figure building, but don’t walk away with your head hung low. Instead, be proud of what you’re doing and what you’re achieving, and use it as a driver to achieve more (and not as a driver to focus on what’s “wrong” with you!).