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Many people have a love-hate relationship with their bathroom scales, especially around the holiday season. If that describes your attitude, take heart. Many respected health and fitness experts claim that measuring our weight is not the best reflection of overall health.
“Body composition testing is important because knowing your weight on the scale tells you nothing about your health,” says Traci Thompson, MS, ACSM HFD, CSCS. “Knowing your body composition and how much fat and lean tissue you have tells you a lot more about your overall health.”
Thompson is the director of PEAK Health and Fitness at the University of Utah Health. At PEAK, the approach to measuring and discussing body composition is holistic and collaborative.
“If someone comes in for a body composition test, we tell them about their results,” says Thompson. “But most of our conversations are about: What is your lifestyle like? How do you sleep? How much do you move? How do you fuel your body? do the things you want to do.”
The testing process at PEAK begins with a short trip inside the Bod Pod, a capsule that uses air displacement plethysmography (ADP) to determine the ratio of fat mass to lean mass in the body of a person. Testing accuracy requires a bit of preparation before someone enters the Bod Pod, including: no food or exercise for four hours before the exam and close-fitting clothes to wear during the test. For women, Thompson recommends a swimsuit or sports bra and lycra shorts; for men, a Speedo or compression shorts.
The Bod Pod experience is a good step in the process of getting a clearer and more complete picture of your health and fitness. It’s quick and easy. “You just sit inside for two to three 50-second tests, and it measures your body composition,” says Thompson. “The error range for this test is plus or minus 2%.”
We have physical activity recommendations that we share with people. One of the most important recommendations is that adults should perform strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week.
–Traci Thompson, director of PEAK Health and Fitness at University of Utah Health
Once the numbers are calculated, Thompson and his team of highly trained graduate students help their clients understand the results. Thompson points out that “there’s no number I can give you that says, ‘Yeah, that’s a healthy amount of body fat or not.’ What we want to talk to people about is how they arrived at these numbers.” Having a healthy lifestyle is much more important to health than how much body fat you have.
The conversation often begins with a look at physical activity and whether a person is doing physical activity every day and recommending 150 minutes of movement per week. Thompson has a master’s degree in health and exercise science, so she tends to emphasize the importance of activity in our daily lives.
At PEAK, Thompson suggests that every client is unique and there are no one-size-fits-all recommendations.
“We have physical activity recommendations that we share with people,” she says. “One of the most important recommendations is that adults should perform strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week.”
Other areas of interest when analyzing and discussing body composition include sleep quality and quantity, stress levels, and diet. These sessions are often led by graduate students who are completing their studies in nutrition and dietetics.
Maddy Hutchison is a Nutrition Specialist and a graduate student in the Coordinated Masters Program (CMP) in Nutrition and Dietetics. “Helping individuals establish a good relationship with food and their bodies is an integral part of the work we do at PEAK,” says Hutchison. “By ensuring that the nutrition education we give to clients is evidence-based and personalized to fit their lifestyle, these changes are long-lasting and enjoyable.”
As an undergrad working on her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, Hutchison competed in cross country and track and field competitions, where she witnessed discussions about what an ideal runner’s body looks like. Hutchison says she wanted to help others optimize their health through food and lifestyle choices independent of body size.
“My own experience convinced me to go beyond the focus on body size as a symbol of health,” Hutchison said. “I want to focus more on helping others fuel their bodies with proper nutrition to support their health goals without the pressure of looking a certain way.”
This combination of services provided by long-time health and fitness professionals and students who will soon put their skills to use in the real world is what sets the PEAK program apart from others. “These students are so smart and they’re educated on the latest research,” Thompson said. “They’re constantly on the cutting edge of technology, and that’s a win for our customers.”
The PEAK team can also measure a person’s resting metabolic rate (RMR). The RMR is the number of calories your body needs to maintain its current weight if you were to sit in a chair all day. Preparing for the test requires fasting and resting for four hours, much like the Bod Pod.
Thompson describes the rest of the process: “You sit in a chair and breathe through a tube for 10 minutes. The tube is connected to a machine that measures the calories you burn at rest. This data is extrapolated to determine your body’s caloric needs. all day long.”
The number of calories burned in this completely restful state is far less than what someone with a sedentary lifestyle could burn in a day. Yet, the RMR is one more benchmark on a person’s journey to better health and physical fitness. “It’s useful knowledge for people thinking about what they’re putting into their body in terms of calories,” says Thompson. “It’s also useful for talking about how much you move.”
PEAK’s services are available to anyone who wishes to schedule an appointment for testing, analysis and advice. These individual tips on how to improve your overall health have perhaps never been more important for people whose lives and lifestyles have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hutchison saw this new need for guidance in clients she worked with post-pandemic. “Many people know what it means to eat healthy and exercise, but can sometimes use the help to figure out strategies to adapt it to how their lives have changed since the pandemic.”
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