The Measure of Physical Health

You obsess with the scale and fitting into your clothes. You're concerned about thick legs, a bit too much belly fat and a growing waistline.

With all of this on your mind, what else can you possibly think about?

Even a good exercise regimen often does little to take the edge off this worry. After just one week of training, many of my clients ask me for my opinion of their weight loss so far:

"Stefan, what do you think? Don't I look thinner?"

I always smile to myself and wonder, "What do you think? That I have X-ray eyes and a built-in scanner to weigh you and take your body fat measurements?"

But we still need to be able to keep track of our progress, right? Here are a few helpful clarifications on the measurements currently used in the industry -- and if they make sense or not.

Waist Measurement

The waist measurement is a good start, particularly if you are relying only on yourself to measure your progress.

However, this may not be the most accurate of strategies. If you happen to look at individuals who are using this approach, pay close attention when they take a second measurement. In many cases, you may notice that the second measurement will be smaller simply because the tape is held tighter.

Other factors can also influence the result. Try taking an initial measurement, and then hold your stomach in and take a second measurement right away. Voila, you have just lost three inches right there!

Also, can it be guaranteed that the same point of measurement is always used? Most likely not, unless the individual uses a fixed point, like a joint, to measure down to a certain point on your leg, stomach or arm.

Another shortfall of this method is that it cannot tell you how much lean muscle tissue you have gained and how much fat tissue you have lost since you started your workout program.

Body Mass Index, or BMI

Another interesting measurement. Do you know the formula? Here it is:

BMI = (Weight in Pounds/(Height in inches) x (Height in inches) x 703

The outcome of this calculation should give you an idea if you are underweight, have normal weight, are overweight, obese or extremely obese.

Now for the downside: I am sure that you have heard about the usage of the BMI and the NFL. More then half of the NFL players are supposed to be obese or extremely obese, according to this measurement.

The problem with this measurement is that it does not take into consideration the entire story of your weight. A 220-pound athlete can have 10 percent body fat, meaning that this individual has very little body fat versus fat tissue on his body. However, the opposite might be the case as well if we are going to take a 220-pound individual who is sedentary his entire life. The BMI does not consider the difference between these two individuals, even though one is obviously in much better shape than the other.

Other Measurement Strategies

Measurements can be done also through hydrostatic weighing, a process that involves submerging your body into a tank of water. The measurements are calculated from the relationship between the underwater weight and the normal body weight.

Obviously, however, this test is a little bit complicated to execute -- unless you have access to a container full of water where you can submerge yourself with an underwater scale, of course.

Another way to do it would be using bioelectrical impedance, in which an electrical impulse is sent painlessly through your body. The idea is that electricity travels more easily through tissues that have a lot of water, such as muscle, and less easily through tissues in which water is scarcer, such as fat. So by measuring the amount of current that makes it through the body, you can also estimate how much fat your body contains.

However, it is difficult to get an accurate reading with this method, as you will always drink a different amount of fluids from one day to the next. Hence, it is difficult to establish base points of measurement.

So what makes sense if you want to track and measure your process?

One of the easiest ways to accurately measure your body composition is a series of skin fold measurements, which normally have a standard error of not more then 3.5 percent. This is simply done, using calipers to measure folds of skin on different points on your body. The skin fold measurement is based on the belief that 50 percent of body fat lies under the skin, which can be pinched and measured at anatomical locations.

So now that you have your body fat percentage, the outcome can be assessed by using the following guidelines:

Essential Fat

Women: 10-12 percent

Men: 2-4 percent


Women: 14-20 percent

Men: 6-13 percent


Women: 21-24 percent

Men: 14-17 percent


Women: 25-31 percent

Men: 18-24 percent


Women: 32 percent and higher

Men: 25 percent and higher

Reaching Your Goals

The goal objective for a regular individual should be getting to the fitness region. Yes, I know it is easier said than done. But it is doable.

These guidelines may also give you also a great goal incentive. You can map out when you should reach what kind of body fat percentage with what kind of body weight. Your gain or loss of fat tissue and lean muscle tissue can be tracked and measured.

This is the only measurement that can give you this information. The other measurements are just tools to give you information on the direction you are going in your fitness goals.

But let's keep it logical and honest. You probably already know when you weigh too much and when you need to lose weight. You don't need measurements to prove this fact.

Stefan Aschan is the owner and founder of, providing nutrition and exercise programs, in New York City.