You know your friend, the one who is skinny as a twig, but lives on candy, chips, and ice cream? And to add fuel to that envious fire burning inside you, she does not exercise – unless of course carrying laundry down the stairs counts as exercise to you, but it does not in my book.
Now ask yourself, do you consider her healthy?
I have news for you: Simply being thin is not akin to being healthy. There is such a thing as being skinny-fat. Being skinny-fat is about much more than physical appearance. In fact, your dress size has absolutely nothing on the much bigger issue – YOUR HEALTH. In many cases, the skinnier you get, the more you’re actually at risk for health problems! Low body weight could mean someone has low lean muscle mass. And low muscle mass and high body fat percentage has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer.
We live in a culture obsessed with weight, but there is a difference between being thin and being healthy. That difference lies in body composition.
What is body composition?
Most medical offices and health insurance companies use Body Mass Index (BMI) to measure body composition – because it is easy. Unfortunately, easy and accurate are not the same. According to BMI, most of my colleagues and I are classified as overweight to morbidly obese. So what does that have to say about health and fitness professionals? BMI does not account for lean mass!
Body composition is a measure of lean and fatty tissues. A healthy body composition is determined by the percentage of body fat versus lean muscle mass. Ideally, you want your body fat percentage low and lean muscle mass percentage high. An altered body composition arises when the percentage of body fat is too high. The ACSM recommends adult men to have between 10-22% body fat, while women should have between 20-32% body fat.
Being overweight is often used synonymously with an altered body composition; however, excess body weight is not a definitive assessment for altered body composition. Just as thin is not synonymous with fit and healthy. Extreme athletes or weight lifters can have a body weight that is considered outside of a healthy reference range (BMI), but their body compositions may be optimal due to the high amount of lean muscle. Muscle actually weighs more than fat. That’s easy to forget sometimes! This is one reason stepping on the scale can be so frustrating and why it’s important to get measurements taken every four weeks.
The best advice I can give: Judge your progress by how your clothes fit and feel, not by the number on the scale. This is how I typically do it and I tend to avoid the scale.
How can you improve your body composition?
Certain weight loss programs can actually be harmful and counterproductive to improving body composition. In some cases, weight loss programs result in excessive loss of muscle along with fat. Why? Because our energy reserves are in our muscles. An example of such a program is The Biggest Loser.
When we deprive our bodies of energy (e.g., restrictive dieting), we force our bodies to dive into those energy reserves. It’s far more important to focus on FAT LOSS. Studies have found that the most successful way to slow the aging process is to maintain a healthy muscle mass along with eating a balanced, low-calorie diet. And unfortunately, maintaining muscle mass as we age is difficult because we naturally lose muscle—unless we work to keep it.
- Losing weight does not mean you have a healthy heart. On the other hand, getting fit and eating a healthy diet can dramatically improve heart health.
- Losing weight alone does not lower your cholesterol, but regular exercise and healthy eating will.
- Simply losing weight is not going to lower your risk of contracting certain types of cancers, but regular exercise and mindful eating can.
- Losing weight cannot prevent osteoporosis, boost your immune system, lead to healthier pregnancies and childbirth, improve your physical performance, or prevent the loss of muscle. However, by adopting a regular exercise routine and a healthy eating plan, you can!
So what does this mean? Losing weight is not the important part of getting healthy. The important things to consider are healthy eating, regular exercise, and generally taking care of yourself! Skinny-fat or fat-fat your #1 priority should be to adopt a healthy lifestyle and get fit for life!