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What is a Body Composition Analysis?

sports-medicineFor many people, getting on the scale can be a struggle. It goes up, it goes down. It has more mood swings than a woman in menopause. And often seems just as irritable. Not that I would know anything about that. Ahem.

Among the best tools to measure weight loss, lean muscle mass, body fat percentage and overall health is the body composition analysis.

What are the different methods of assessment, where are they done, how accurate are they, and how much do they cost? I just did one, so let’s look at our options!

Body Mass Index (BMI): Let me start by saying, BMI is NOT a measure of body composition. It is an assessment of body weight relative to height. It doesn’t take into consideration a person’s bone density, muscle mass, hydration level, gender or even age.


Calculators are readily available online and are free.

Skinfold calipers: Used in fitness centers and by personal trainers, these measure folds of fat on your body.


A practitioner will test strategic locations on the body to measure how much fat is under the skin. The test assumes that roughly half of the body’s fat is immediately under the skin because that’s true for most people. Whether that’s true for you is another matter. A degree of expertise is required by the test administrator as well. That is to say, don’t buy one and just start squeezing. Still, skinfold calipers are generally considered a reasonably accurate method of measuring body fat, and at only about $15 they’re a very inexpensive choice.

Bioelectric Impedance Analysis (BIA): BIA relies on a low-level electrical impulse sent through the body, the idea being that muscle has more water content than fat. Body fat scales and BIA-enabled hand-held devices will give you a body fat % based on a prediction of what your body fat probably is, as compared to an average that’s been programmed into the device’s algorithm.


BIA scales and devices are readily available online for $25-$150 and are considered reasonably accurate.

Hydrostatic weighing: Until recently this was considered the most accurate method of body composition testing. An individual’s dry body weight is compared to their underwater weight (yes, as in submerged), and from that result it is possible to calculate the proportion of fat to lean mass.


Hydrostatic weighing is very accurate, but as you can imagine it is limited to settings with appropriate equipment. Additionally, the person being tested must be able to hold his / her breath under water for approximately 30 seconds at a time. Cost varies widely.

Dual X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA or DeXA) scan: Originally developed as a method of measuring bone density, DXA measures the volume and density of all tissues including bone, muscle and fat. The test must be done in a setting with appropriate equipment by a trained technician, but these settings are not limited to medical facilities. I just recently had a DXA body composition analysis done at a sports medicine clinic, without a doctor or insurance referral.


This test’s accuracy (98.5%) and the scope of information it yields make it an incredible tool for assessing bone density, lean muscle mass, body fat percentage (both essential and non-essential fat), basal metabolic rate, daily caloric burn, waist-to-hip ratio (an indicator of heart disease and diabetes), and ideal body weight based on your personal markers. A one-time test costs $125 where I did it, or you can purchase three tests for $300. The advantage of doing multiple tests, staggered over several months, is that you can see changes in your body composition relative to dietary and exercise changes.

Body composition analysis offers powerful insight and information into what’s happening inside your body. Weight loss – certainly the number on the scale – isn’t the only consideration when moving toward a healthier life. Knowing how your eating and exercise habits affect your lean muscle mass, your body fat percentage and other health barometers can be hugely empowering.

Losing weight is hard. But staring down your bathroom scale might seem a little easier if you utilize the additional tool of a body composition analysis. And you’re so damn worth it!

Let’s go get it!

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