Most diets focus on body weight and weight loss over maintaining healthy body composition. Your body composition is the percentage of body fat, muscle, bone, and other tissues. Read on to understand what body composition means and why physical fitness is preferable to weight loss.
What Is Body Composition?
Body composition is the term used in the fitness and health community to refer to the percentage of fat, water, bone, muscle, skin, and other lean tissues that make up the body.
While checking your weight on the scale can be helpful for seeing your total weight, it doesn’t tell you the composition of your body.
Typically, people break body composition into two groups: fat mass and fat-free mass. Fat mass is the amount of body fat. Fat-free mass is all the lean tissues in your body like muscles, organs, bone, water, etc.
How Is Body Mass Index Different?
Body mass index (BMI) is another popular term used in the medical and health community to describe body measurements.
Body composition is different from body mass index because BMI focuses on how your whole body weight compares to your height. BMI is calculated by taking total body mass in kilograms (kg) and dividing it by height in meters (m) squared. The results are written with unit kg/m2.
The number is then put into a chart to find the category. The BMI categories include:
- BMI less than 18.5 = Underweight
- BMI 18.5 to 24.9 = Normal
- BMI 25 to 29.9 = Overweight
- BMI 30 to 34.9 = Obese class I
- BMI 35 to 39.9 = Obese class II
- BMI more than 40 = Obese class III
The problem with BMI is it doesn’t accurately show your body composition. Many athletic people with high muscle mass and low body fat percentage may fall into the overweight or obese categories.But that doesn’t mean they have the same health risk factors as someone with the same BMI and a high body fat percentage.
Why Body Composition Is Important
Body composition and body fat percentage may better predict health risks than simple obesity classification based on BMI. A healthier body composition is a higher percentage of lean tissue and a lower percentage of body fat.
Body composition is important because it can give you a better idea of your health risk, especially if you fall in the overweight or obesity category for BMI because you have more muscle and lean tissue.
While weight loss and watching the number on the scale can help, it doesn’t tell you whether you’re losing body fat or muscle mass.
How Is Body Composition Measured?
Body composition is measured using tools to estimate your body fat percentage. The ways to measure body composition vary. Some are more accessible but may be less accurate, while others may be harder to access and more accurate.Here are different ways body composition is measured.
Skinfold measurements use a special type of caliper tool designed to measure the thickness of a skinfold. It's done by gently pinching the skin and fat under the skin on several body parts.
Skinfold measurements are usually done on the following:
- Side of the torso
- Upper thigh
- Beneath the shoulder blade
- Tricep or upper arms
This type of measurement is accurate. However, there is a large possibility of "user error" if the person performing the test doesn't have proper training.
Body circumference or waist circumference measurements are a simple and easy way to estimate body fat. It uses a tape measure to see how wide around specific body parts are. Circumference is often assessed on body parts like the waist, arms, chest, thighs, and hips.
Research suggests carrying more weight on your abdomen is associated with an increased risk for health problems. The circumference method helps assess the risk for disease based on the weight you carry on your belly.
However, this method may not be the best if your goal is to assess your overall body fat percentage because it only measures the circumference and not the percentage of fat and muscle.
Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry
The dual energy X-ray absorptiometry scan, known as a DEXA scan, uses low-energy X-rays to accurately measure the weight of bone, muscle, and body fat.After the scan, you receive an assessment of your bone density, body fat percentage, and mass of each body part.
Many professionals consider the DEXA scan the gold standard for measuring muscle mass.However, it can be harder to find a place to have a DEXA scan done depending on where you live, and it may be a more expensive option.
Hydrostatic weighing measures the water displacement when someone is fully submerged in water. Because fat floats and lean tissues sink in water, the more lean body mass you have, the heavier you’ll be under water.
Hydrostatic weighing was long considered the gold standard for assessing body composition until other methods, like DEXA scans, were developed.While this method is accurate, some people find it difficult to stay submerged in water long enough for the assessment, and it may not be accessible.
A bioimpedance analysis (BIA) uses a painless, low-energy electrical current to assess fat mass, muscle mass, and hydration (water mass).
Muscle contains more water than fat, so it conducts the energy current better than fat. Fat tissue impedes the movement of the current. The BIA scanner can assess body composition based on how the energy moves through the body. This test tends to cost less and may be easier to find than other types of scans.
However, the accuracy of this assessment changes based on how hydrated you are.If you drink too much water before the test, you could appear leaner than you are. If you’re dehydrated, the test may say you have more body fat than you do.
Some other methods of assessing body composition include:
- BodPod: Uses air displacement to determine body composition.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Uses strong magnetic currents to generate an image.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: Uses X-rays and a computer to generate an image.
How to Improve Body Composition
The best way to improve your body composition is to make healthy changes, like:
Eating a diet full of highly processed foods that provide large amounts of sugar and fat is associated with gaining weight and body fat. To improve your body composition, you’ll have to focus on healthy diet changes.
Try to be mindful of how much you’re eating and aim to fill your plate with mostly:
- Whole grains
- Lean proteins
- Healthy fats
Principles of Healthy Eating
Moving more and exercising regularly helps improve body composition.
Research shows all types of exercise programs helped improve the body composition of people who were sedentary. The results showed strength training programs that develop the whole body had the biggest impact on body composition and improving bone density.
Here are some tips to help you increase your physical activity
- Try group fitness classes.
- Find a type of exercise you enjoy.
- Meet with friends to exercise.
- Find an accountability partner.
- Hire a trainer.
- Walk during part of your lunch break.
- Take the stairs.
What Is Aerobic Exercise?
The amount of time you sleep and your sleep quality can greatly impact your body composition.
A 2018 study found poor sleep quality was associated with:
- Lower bone mineral density
- Lower muscle mass
- Higher body fat mass
So, if you’re looking to improve your body composition, you may want to place a higher priority on sleep.
Here are some tips to help increase your sleep quality:
- Have a consistent bedtime routine, including going to bed and waking up at the same time daily.
- Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet environment.
- If you need background noise, use a fan or noise machine for a consistent sound.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.
- Exercise regularly.
How to Improve Sleep
In addition to the above lifestyle changes, other changes that may help your body composition include:
- Managing your stress levels.
- Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Prioritizing your mental health.
Body composition is a measurement of the amount of body fat and lean tissue in your body. It’s important because having more body fat is associated with an increased risk for some chronic diseases and health problems.
Body composition can be measured with tests like skinfold assessment, DEXA scan, body circumference, hydrostatic weighing, and bioimpedance analysis. In addition, you may be able to improve your body composition by focusing on lifestyle changes like a healthy diet, exercise, sleeping better, and managing stress.
A Word From Verywell
Body composition can give you a better understanding of your current fitness and health level. In addition, repeating the body composition test over time can help you track your progress on your wellness journey.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you figure out your healthy body weight?
Many calculations for finding healthy body weight use factors like age, sex, and height. These measures can be limited and provide an estimated range. Still, finding your height on a BMI chart can give you an idea of what a healthy weight may be for you.
Are certain exercises good for body composition?
All types of exercises can help with body composition, especially if you weren’t very active before. Strength training and interval training may have a bigger impact on raising your muscle mass and lowering your body fat percentage.(Video) Brain Bites for Body Composition
With respect to health and fitness, body composition is used to describe the percentages of fat, bone and muscle in human bodies. The body fat percentage is of most interest because it can be very helpful in assessing health.What is body composition example? ›
Generally, your body is made up of lean mass, including muscles and organs, and fat mass, which is the fat tissue you have stored throughout the body. These together are commonly referred to as your body composition.What are the 4 body compositions? ›
The 4-component (4C) model, which divides body weight into fat, water, mineral, and protein, can overcome these limitations.What is a good body composition? ›
For people aged 20 to 39, women should aim for 21% to 32% of body fat. Men should have 8% to 19%. For people 40 to 59, women should fall between 23% to 33% and men should fall around 11% to 21%. If you're aged 60 to 79, women should have 24% to 35% body fat and men should have 13% to 24%.Is body composition your weight? ›
Your body weight is simply your body's total mass. Body composition is what your weight is made of—muscle, bone, water, and fat.How do I improve my body composition? ›
Summary: Nutrition and exercise are critical for improving body composition. Keeping your calories, fiber and protein in check is a good first step. All exercise can help with fat loss, but weight training is the best way to increase muscle mass.Why is body composition important? ›
Body composition plays an important role in understanding your health and wellness, measuring the differences between leanness and too much fat. This allows you to accurately assess your health and plan your lifestyle and diet accordingly.What are 4 body composition exercises? ›
You can transform your body at home by doing body composition exercises such as squats, lunges, push-ups, burpees, and planks.What is not a good body composition? ›
If you're an athlete or regular gym-goer, it's possible to have a body fat percentage lower than the acceptable range for your sex and still be healthy. However, a body fat percentage less than 5% for males and 10% for females is unhealthy.What are the 2 main components of body composition? ›
The body is composed of water, protein, minerals, and fat. A two-component model of body composition divides the body into a fat component and fat-free component. Body fat is the most variable constituent of the body.
Gender, age, race, nutrition, physical activity, and hormonal status are the main determinants of body composition. Illness may have a significant effect on body composition; malnutrition is a major complication.What is poor body composition? ›
Poor body composition, specifically too much body fat in the wrong places, contributes to the development of diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, some cancers and heart disease.What does measuring your body composition tell you? ›
Body composition is used by health professionals to evaluate a person's weight by breaking it down into its core components: fat, protein, minerals, and body water. It describes your healthy weight more accurately and provides a better glimpse into your overall health than traditional methods like BMI & weight.What is body composition how do you measure it? ›
The most common assessments are anthropometric and include weight, stature, abdominal circumference, and skinfold measurements. More complex methods include bioelectrical impedance, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, body density, and total body water estimates.Why is body composition so important? ›
Body composition plays an important role in understanding your health and wellness, measuring the differences between leanness and too much fat. This allows you to accurately assess your health and plan your lifestyle and diet accordingly.What can affect body composition? ›
Gender, age, race, nutrition, physical activity, and hormonal status are the main determinants of body composition. Illness may have a significant effect on body composition; malnutrition is a major complication.What is the easiest way to measure your body composition? ›
Calipers are the cheapest, easiest and most portable method to measure body fat in specific areas. Using at least three spots on your body – chest, abs and thigh are often used – pinch the skin, pulling the muscle away from the fat and measure the fold with the calipers.Is body composition more important than body weight? ›
Losing Weight vs.
"Having a healthy body composition isn't just about losing weight. Studies show that being fit is more important than how much you weigh when it comes to lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality," explains Thompson.
Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) is a highly accurate imaging method that determines body composition of bones, body fat, and muscle mass.