Scrawny to Brawny: Hydrostatic Testing

by J.D. Roth

At the start of 2013, I vowed to re-dedicate myself to a focus on fitness. After two-and-a-half years of exercising and eating well, I’d let my attention to health and well-being slide a little, and I didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I said fitness was a priority but my actions showed otherwise. I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted and I rarely went for runs. After a one-month detox at the start of the year — no caffeine, no alcohol, low sugar, and so on — my diet became mediocre. It was never bad, really, meaning I didn’t fall into eating junk food on a regular basis, but it was never great either.

I’m not willing to keep coasting along, so I recently signed up for the one-year Scrawny to Brawny program. Though its name is funny, my research indicates that this coaching program (which is based on a book by the same name) is based on common sense and sound methodology. Because I do well with structure and feedback, this seems like a good choice for me. I’m going to give it a shot. My new fitness regimen starts today.

As part of that, I need to have accurate measurements of my body composition.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a scale with a body-composition monitor. This device, which provides accurate and consistent weight measurements (always a good thing in a scale!), uses electrical impedance to estimate body fat.

At the moment, I’m forty-four years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall (173 centimeters). When I started using the scale in April 2010, my weight was 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms) and my body fat was 35.0%. My body-mass index (BMI) was 32.3. At my leanest in June 2012, my weight was 163 pounds (73.9 kilograms) and my body fat was 17.5%. My BMI was 24.7.

According to my scale, I lost fifty pounds and half my body fat in just over two years.

Today I weigh 176 pounds (79.8 kilograms) and my fancy scale says I’m 23.3% body fat. My BMI is 26.7. Over the past year, I’ve softened. I’ve exercised less and discovered a love for beer. This isn’t a great combination for a fitness-minded fellow!

For a while, I’ve understood that the body composition numbers from my scale probably aren’t accurate. Electrical impedance isn’t the most accurate method of measurement for this sort of thing. I’m okay with that, though, since the scale is cheap (as in, I already own it) and if I use sound methodology, I can at least get a good idea of how my body composition changes over time. That is, if I measure myself under the same conditions and at the same time every day, the variation in results will give me a good idea of what’s happening to my body.

Still, I’ve always wanted to get an accurate test from a trained professional. When I heard that Portland’s Adventist Medical Center offers body-composition testing, including the very accurate hydrostatic method, I scheduled an appointment.

I dropped by at noon last Friday to be tested. It was quick and easy.

First, the nurse measured my body composition using calipers. She pinched my skin and measured the thickness of the folds at seven different locations, including chest, belly, thigh, and so on. Next, she had me fully immerse myself in a tank of water four times. I brought a camera to film the process:

Sorry about the funky audio…

While I changed back into my street clothes, the nurse punched numbers into a computer. The results startled me. Kim teases me that I have some sort of body dysmorphia (and Kris would be inclined to agree with her, I’m sure), but I’ve always just laughed it off. Maybe she’s right. I feel f-a-t right now. I don’t like the way I look. And if anything, I believed my scale’s 23.3% body fat numbers were low. Well…

“Your results are remarkably consistent,” the nurse told me when she sat down to review the results with me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually there’s a large variance between the results of these tests. Three to five percent is normal. Your results only vary by one-and-a-half percent. And if we leave out the least accurate method, there’s no statistical difference between the other two.”

Based on her measurements, here’s my current body composition:

The nurse and I chatted about the results.

“Your results are fine,” she told me. “You’re within the healthy range. You have some extra fat in your belly, but I’d guess that’s because you drink too much.” I laughed because she’s right. “If you cut back on your drinking, that should go away.”

She asked why I wanted to get my body composition measured, and I told her that I was starting the Scrawny to Brawny program. She nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea,” she said. “But be careful. Most of my clients are athletes, and I see all kinds. Some use steroids; some don’t. When you go to the gym, give up the idea of ever looking like the guys with lots of muscles. For one thing, that’s not how you are built. For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.”

All of this is fascinating. I have no desire whatsoever to use steroids, so that’s not a concern. But I think the nurse sensed some of my body dysmorphia and was trying to set me up to have reasonable expectations. That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, my goal is to be happy and healthy. That means eating right and exercising regularly. I’ve seen that I’m good at this when I make it a priority and it becomes a habit. I’ve just let that lapse. Starting today, however, it’s back to the gym!

Updated: 11 November 2013

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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