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Total body fat: a weighty issue.


With the football season now past us, some of us men may take momentary satisfaction in the similarity of our own height and weight statistics to those of one of those burly guys in the Super Bowl. This notion, however, is soon dispelled when we realize that his weight consists largely of lean, steel-hard muscle. Ours? Well...

It is excess fat, not total weight, that puts us at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. Although most of us have relied heavily (no pun intended) on our bathroom scales to keep track of our dieting progress (or lack thereof), diet centers and health clubs are now telling us that body fat percentage, as well as total weight, is important. Researchers can tell us the value of such information, but most of us know pretty well how our fitness programs work by what the mirror tells us. Body-fat testing can be expensive, yet if your health club or periodic physical exam offers it at no extra cost, it may give you a better idea of how your fitness program is helping you.

The most accurate test, underwater weighing, is also the most cumbersome and thus is not available except in some hospitals and research labs. The simplest and most common test is a variation of the "pinch an inch" test, using calipers to measure the tickness of skinfolds on various parts of the body. More "high-tech" are the infrared test, which uses a fiber-optic wand to send near-infrared light into a body site, and the bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA) test. The former determines how much light is absorbed by fat, based on the amount that comes back. The BIA test measures the resistance between electrodes attached to the hand and foot--the more body fat, the more resistance.

The reliability of these two tests, however, is still not well-established. Both the underwater and caliper tests, on the other hand, require well-trained health professionals to administer and interpret them. That leaves the old-fashioned bathroom scale, or one of its modern variations, as the best tool for most of us to check our weight--provided it is used properly. A few simple precautions include first checking out several models for consistency before buying. Once you have bought the one you like, be sure the apparatus is on a hard surface and not on a carpet. Although most home scales are not very accurate, they satisfactorily track changes in weight. But don't weight yourself more than once a week. More frequent weighing will be misleading and confusing due to the normal fluctuations we all experience from one cause or another.
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Title Annotation:testing body fat percentage
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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