Measure Up

When it comes to your weight-loss progress, what you don't know can hurt you. Here are the best ways (from old-fashioned to high-tech) to keep tabs on your changing figure - and your health.
Measure Up

Why weigh in?
"Scale avoidance can lead to unwanted pounds creeping up on you without your knowledge, putting you at risk for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers," says Judith Korner, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University in New York. "If you weigh yourself regularly, you know if you've gained and can make a plan of attack before more pounds accumulate." To get the most accurate picture of your progress, stick to a weekly weigh-in since weight can fluctuate on a daily basis due to water retention.

Scaling Up
On a scale of one to 10, how does your bathroom scale measure up? If your unit doesn't provide the latest high-tech features, such as measuring body fat or revealing how many pounds you've lost since you last weighed yourself, you could be missing out. Consider treating yourself to a new scale to make tracking your progress easier and more accurate.

The Numbers Game
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measurement based on height and weight, which determines whether you are at a healthy weight (18 to 24.9), are overweight (25 to 29.9) or are obese (30 and higher). "A BMI is a good assessment of where you stand in terms of health and can help you determine how aggressively to tackle your weight problem," says Korner. She recommends that everyone, regardless weight, knows what his or her BMI is.

Change matters.
A healthy BMI doesn't mean you're in the clear. "Even if you stay within a normal BMI range, any increase can signal a health risk," says Korner. "For instance, you can have an increased risk for developing hypertension and diabetes if your BMI goes from 22 to 24." Consider this a warning that your current habits are leading you down the wrong health path. Keep those habits up and your BMI is likely to follow them north.

Do it yourself.
To calculate your BMI, use this formula: Divide your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared. Multiply that total by 703. Or use our BMI calculator.

Roll the tape!
Remember the tape measure? If you're of a certain age, you may recall that this sewing-basket essential doubled as a tool to measure more than fabric—it was once the preferred method for charting a changing figure. Today, experts still rate the tape measure as a top tracking method for assessing your health risks as well as providing tangible proof of a changing shape.

What a Waist
"Along with your BMI, your waist circumference will reveal if you're at risk for future health problems such as heart disease or diabetes," says Korner. If your waist is greater than 35 inches (40 inches for men), you have a greater risk of developing obesity-related health problems. The tape measure is also an underrated tool when it comes to providing motivation. Since avid exercisers often lose inches faster than pounds because they're losing fat while gaining muscle—and since fat takes up more room than muscle—the tape measure is a better barometer of progress. "On the flip side, if you're dropping pounds but not inches, that's a sign that, although your diet is working, you need to raise your fitness ante. Try walking 30 minutes every day at a pace of three miles an hour," says Korner.

Size Wise
Measure your chest, thighs, arms, hips, buttocks and waist once a month. For accurate waist-measuring results, stand tall with feet together and place a plastic tape measure around your bare abdomen (cloth varieties can stretch out over time), just above your hipbones. Be sure the tape is snug, does not compress your skin, and is parallel to the floor. As you measure, look straight ahead and don't slouch to look down at your reading. Place one finger on the end of the tape measure, pull it away from your body, then read.

What's the skinny?
If you've just started lifting weights and you've also put on a few pounds recently, your muscle-building workout must be to blame, right? Not so fast. Before you jump to that conclusion, have your body fat measured using a skin-fold caliper (a device used to measure the thickness of a fold of skin with its underlying layer of fat) to determine if you have gained muscle—or fat. Here's how it works: A trained technician measures the skin-fold thickness in your upper arms, upper back, stomach, upper thighs and other areas (there are more than 20 caliper-worthy sites on the body). Measurements are typically taken from two of these sites and the average is converted into your percentage of body fat using a mathematical formula.

Consistency counts.
While calipers are one of the top ways to measure body fat; the accuracy is contingent on the skill of the technician, so use the assessment in addition to the scale and other weight-monitoring tools. To boost accuracy, have an assessment taken once a month with the same technician and the same type of caliper every time. "After you've had your measurements taken a few times, look into learning how to use calipers yourself," says Jack Wang, MS, codirector of the Body Composition Unit at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York. While a technician should always calculate your body fat percentage based on a mathematical formula (there are hundreds of mathematical formulas technicians use, and it's best to leave the complicated math to the experts), just measuring your skin-fold thickness alone will give you an idea of whether you're losing or gaining fat over time. "Stick to measuring your triceps, mid-thighs or abdominal area, which are the easiest to measure," says Wang.

Size doesn't matter.
While some experts say that calipers are not large enough to grasp fat completely and provide an accurate reading for overweight or obese people, Wang disagrees: "In a survey of 240 women with a BMI over 30, 90 percent of them could be measured using a special, wider-measurement caliper." If you are overweight, discuss this with your technician ahead of time to ensure that a caliper appropriate for your body mass index is used.

Get pinched.
Health clubs and university science departments offer skin-fold assessments. Calipers are available at medical supply companies and range from $10 (for home-use varieties) to $370 for the Harpenden caliper (made for professional use and considered to be the most accurate). Discuss your needs with your physician before making a purchase. If you'd rather not get pinched, there are other new ways to measure body fat, such as biometric impedance analysis (BIA), the Bod Pod and underwater weighing.

This article is reprinted from Weight Watchers Magazine, Jan/Feb 2004.

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