What did you get for Mother’s Day? Flowers? Breakfast in bed? At least a nice card, I hope. Unless you’re a dude. If you got something for Mother’s Day you’d better have at least birthed a kidney stone.
I got my present early. As in o-dark thirty on Saturday morning. It involved a cold, dark pool, a cadaverous professor and a metal chair suspended from a crane-like arm in the water. Sound fun yet? After donning my new cherry-red retro suit (so cute!), I jumped in the water, perched on the chair and proceeded to submerge, exhaling every last bit of air from my lungs and then trying to hold myself perfectly still in a modified crunch while I watched black spots dance on my eyelids. Have I ever mentioned that my worst fear is to get stuck in a cave underwater? You wouldn’t think that unless you are a scuba diver that this would be a fear you would have to confront in your daily life.
Okay, so a 40’s era college pool isn’t exactly a cave and I only had to be underwater for about 5 seconds at a time but still – that was 5 seconds of I-can’t-breathe panic! Plus, every time I surfaced, I got to hear Gym Buddy Allison laughing at me.
The Dunk Test
What did we get for Mother’s Day? Every woman’s dream: a hydrostatic body composition test! Hydrostatic weighing is the gold standard in body fat testing – the only way to get a more accurate reading is to get cut open on the autopsy table. Hydrostatic weighing means getting weighed underwater. It works this way: fat is buoyant so it makes you float, while lean tissue (muscle, skeleton & water) are dense so they make you sink. Air also makes you float which is why you have to get every last bit that you can out of your lungs. So, the MORE you weigh under water, the LESS body fat you have. It’s the only time in my life when I was actually hoping to put up big numbers on the scale!
Once you get over the initial medieval weirdness of the whole contraption, it’s actually kind of entertaining. Which was good since I had to dunk at least ten times. See, you have to exhale AND hold still and due to the aforementioned panic issue that was tough for me. Most people nail the test in 4 tries or less. I stopped counting after eight, much to Allison’s amusement.
But it worked and I was pleasantly surprised by my numbers and the Professor gave me tons of good information so all in all it was a fabulous M-Day gift.
Why Test Fat?
Occasionally people ask why I am so interested in knowing my body fat percentage. *cough*allthetrainersatmygym*cough* The answer is that besides my unholy obsession with all things numerical, it is one of the better ways to assess your level of health. A lot of people focus on weight but the problem is that muscle is more dense than fat so a “skinny fat” person would appear to be more healthy than a very muscular person. This is the primary downfall of the BMI. In addition, the number on the scale is affected by a myriad of factors such as the time of the month (for women), how much salt you’ve eaten recently and how irritating your significant other is being. Side note: Please never ever say “a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat.” They are both a pound thereby making them equivalent. I know what you mean when you say that but it still bugs me. And since I know you all live with the express purpose of not irritating me, I thank you.
It is generally accepted that looking at the percentage of your bodyweight made up of fat is a more meaningful number than just scale weight. Of course if you want a picture of your overall health, body fat percentage is just one of many important numbers.
How To Measure?
If you watch The Biggest Loser or Dr. Phil (Dr. Phil on the Biggest Loser? A product-placement gold mine!) then you are probably familiar with the Tanita scale. Scales that measure body fat percentage range from the cheap & low-tech variety (which I have) to the crazy-tricked-out-make-your-low-riding-neighbor’s-rims-jealous variety. Despite the hoopla, these are the least accurate way to measure your body fat.
The next best way to get your number is by doing the “pinch test” also known as every 8th grader’s nightmare: Caliper Hell. I’m sure you remember the drill – the gym teacher, Satan himself if you had the misfortune of going to my middle school, grabs big hunks of skin and pinches them with a metal tool called the calipers. The caliper measures your subcutaneous fat by the millimeters of skin it can pinch. The lower the numbers, the lower your body fat.
But the best way to check your fat is either with a Bod Pod (not widely available plus it takes 45 minutes, is crazy expensive and is not for claustrophobics) or hydrostatic weighing.
But What Does It All Mean?
So now you have your number, what do you do with it? According to most charts, the normal range for women is 25-31% (18-25% for men). Fit chicas check in around 21-24% (14-17% for men). Athletes are 14-20% (6-13%). Don’t forget that your body requires a certain amount of “essential fat” to pad your organs and run your brain which is 10-12% for women and 2-4% for men.
Generally, lower is better. It means more of your body weight is comprised of lean tissue and less is made up of fat. But I must point out that, like weight, a “zero” means dead. If you’ve forgotten what a woman looks like at a very low body fat percentage, let me refresh your memory. Plus women need estrogen to maintain our bone density and estrogen needs fat. Dropping below the “essential” level can permanently damage your bones, stop your period, and possibly cause malabsorption of vitamins. So, duh, you would never tell your wife that she needs to be 5% (jerk!!).
In a nod to my mostly formerly disordered eating mindset, I don’t think that I look at all what my body fat percentage would indicate. But the professor warned me that to go any lower would be very unhealthy. So as far as my experiments go, my goals are all now strictly performance goals.
On a slightly unrelated note, both my sister and I have noticed since doing the Fox morning show (both of us) and 20/20 (for me) that the ED thoughts have gotten louder. So perhaps this is one instance where I should put more credence on the numbers than on my gut feeling.
If you are interested in getting dunked, I’d suggest starting by calling around to your local universities and colleges. Often they are much cheaper than doing it at a gym. I think it is definitely worth doing if body fat percentage is something that you measure. Have any of you tried this? Please tell me it took you at least 8 dunks too:) Or at least that you too are terrified of getting trapped in an underwater cave!
PS> In case you missed it as a pre-teen, here’s Weird Al in his hysterically funny “I’m Fat” video.