The Truth About Body Measurements

Man measuring waist

Athletes have a tendency to get wrapped up in numbers. The same tends to be true when we discuss personal health. There are a lot of numbers that are commonly used to assess health and help track progress over time, but they can sometimes be confusing, as certain measurements are more useful than others depending on the situation. Having an understanding of body mass index, body composition, waist to hip ratio and circumference measurements can help empower you to better understand where you are at and plot your successes over time.

Body mass index (BMI) is a very common term and measurement that is referenced. BMI simply looks at an individual’s weight in relation to their height. It’s important to understand that this tool was originally developed to look at the health risk in populations as there is likely an increased risk for negative health conditions at certain BMI levels. Researchers can collect this data on a large group and compare health risks between different groups. BMI has a lot of limitations when it comes to looking at each individual’s true health risks, and is typically skewed in athletes to the point that it is not a useful assessment tool. Two important factors it does not take into consideration are body composition and the placement of fat storage.

Body composition is assessed by measuring body fat percentage. It breaks down an individual’s weight into fat and lean body mass. Fat mass is just what it sounds like, additional fat mass stored on the body. Lean body mass includes everything that is essential including bones, tissues, organs, water and muscle. Body fat can be measured through several different techniques including DEXA, under water weighing, Bod Pod, calipers, ultrasound and bioelectrical impedance (BIA). All the methods besides BIA require special equipment and a trained technician. BIA is more readily available to consumers via hand held devices and scales but is less reliable than the other methods. If you do choose to use BIA at home there are a couple tips to help ensure accuracy.

First, weigh yourself and use the device at the same time of day. Typically, the best time is first thing in the morning after you’ve gone to the bathroom and while wearing light or no clothing. Hydration levels drastically affect the BIA reading, so you’ll notice differences throughout the day or on different days where you may have had more or less fluids. There is no reason to weigh yourself or take body fat more than once per day and realistically once per week or every other week works well for many people. Body fat percentage won’t likely change significantly for at least 3-4 weeks at a time, so don’t get too caught up in any slight variations from day to day hydration. Healthy body fat levels are an individual consideration based on age, gender, body type and overall health so it’s best to work with a professional to set an ideal goal.

Where our bodies deposit fat can increase our risk for many diseases. Visceral fat, which is typically stored in the belly around the organs, tends to be the most predictive of possible health risks. Measuring your waist and hip circumference is simple and only requires a tape measure.

Measuring your waist:
1. Place the tape measure tip on your belly button.
2. Wrap it around your waste until it meets back at your belly button.
3. Take a breath in and out and relax your stomach.
4. Record the measurement in inches.

Measuring your hip:
1. Stand with your feet together.
2. Place the tape measure tip on the middle of your hip.
3. Starting in the front, wrap the tape around your hips so it goes over the largest part of your buttocks and thigh.
4. Record the measurement in inches.

Remember: 
Remove loose and extra clothing blocking your waist or hips
Use a mirror or partner to make sure the tape is in a straight line and not twisted
Breathe normally and have good posture while taking measurements
The tape should be ‘relaxed’ without slack or being too tight

Once you have your waist and hip measurements, you can determine the waist-to-hip ratio. Simply divide the waist number in inches by the hip measurement in inches. There are differing opinions in assessing risk level, but in general it is recommended that men have a ratio less than 0.9 and women less than 0.8.

Several other body circumference measurements you could do monthly include your mid-thigh, mid-bicep and chest. These can help you see any changes over time especially if you are trying to gain muscle or lose body fat and tell a more useful story than just focusing on the number on the scale.