Monday, October 24, 2011

When the numbers fail you

My weight has been going up since my Ironman. This is pretty normal for the off-season, but it does worry me and also there are certain numbers on the scale I have trouble with no matter how I look or how much of it is muscle.

The thing is, I can look at my body and know I'm a bit fluffier than I was right before Ironman Canada. But I can also see I'm no more fluffier than I normally am during the off-season. I can fit into my clothes and they are as tight at they normally get in the winter. So I have objective and subjective measures that tell me where I am.

But that doesn't stop me from getting upset when the scale says I'm a certain weight. My head tells me that I've put on a bunch of muscle and I look pretty good if not my 100% best, but my emotions say "fatty!"

It doesn't help that my scale lies to me.
It's never been accurate for body fat. When calipers said I had 17% body fat (and I suspected I had more like 15%), my scale told me I had 9-12%. That was a clearly ridiculous number. Essential body fat for a woman is 10-12%. I clearly had non-essential body fat. For one thing, I had boobs!! I also had thighs and a tummy.

Later on, my scale started saying I had 14-16% body fat when a dunk tank test said 18%. So I figured my scale might not be accurate but it will show me general trends. That's good enough for my purposes.

Except lately it's been showing me ridiculous numbers. As I have gained weight over the past year, a lot of it has been muscle. I can see the muscles in my arms and I have pictures that show I have more muscles than a year ago in that area so I am not fooling myself about this as humans are prone to doing.

But my scale claims that every single pound I've gained is fat. It claims my arms are now 28-29% body fat. Except anyone can look at my arms and see that I have almost no extra body fat in them. Guessing, I'd say they are 10-15% body fat. At most.

It says similarly that my legs - 21-25% body fat. But I've seen an MRI of my calves and they have only the thinnest layer of subcutaneous fat so something like 5-10% body fat. Now the scale may be counting some of my rear end as my "legs" and my thighs do have more fat than my calves. But my arms are thinner than my legs while my scale says my arms have proportionately more body fat. Like that 9-12% number from 2.5 years ago, it defies common sense.

So when my scale tells me that my torso is 24% body fat -- a more believable number -- I don't know what to think. I want to think I have no more fat there than I normally do during the off-season. But this area has a lot of loose skin and it's got a lot of room for fat internally where you can't see it. So I don't want to be fooling myself like I did when I was 225 and told myself I 'carried my weight well.'

Therefore, to definitely answer this question, I decided to have a body fat test done. Last time I did this, I used the dunk tank method and it was okay. The number it gave me was completely believable. However, there are two companies in the area that do this test, and they both seem to specialize in going out to events rather than individual appointments. Plus, you get wet doing this test. 

So I decided to go with the BodPod test instead.

The BodPod uses a similar principle to hydrostatic testing (dunk tank) but it uses air displacement instead of water. I had read that it was just as accurate as the dunk tank. Plus, there are about five places in the area that do it, not two, and scheduling a test is easy and you don't get wet. So that's what I did.

I arrived at Sunnyvale Health and Fitness Club for my test. I thought this was a typical gym but it turned out to be a small place, more of a 'trainer starts a gym' place, a hole-in-the-wall in an industrial park. It was kind of grungy and the BodPod looked like it hadn't been used in a while. The owner was a big dude with a really red face and I felt uncomfortable being alone with him. 

I had had second thoughts about this place before I got there because every time I called, the dude answered the phone with "Hello" and not "Sunnyvale Health and Fitness" making me think I'd called a wrong number. (Also, the first time I called, I got a strong impression that he was high.)

But I was there, so I stripped out of my clothing to my bathing suit underneath and got on the scale. He asked me my height and my age but nothing about my fitness level. I got into the "pod" and it was okay. I was thinking I might feel claustrophobic but there was plenty of room. The seat was cold though and I had trouble sitting back against it at first.

The test is run three times. Each time you are old to breath "normally" and to stay still with your hands in your lap. The chamber gets opened up in between each test, I guess to rest the air? I didn't have too much trouble sitting still but I did have trouble breathing normally because I tend to hold my breath when I sit still.

Then I got out of the machine, I changed back into my clothes while a single sheet was spit out of the printer. (I got a full 6 page printout from the dunk test people.) The guy goes over it with me. 

First, he claims my body fat percentage is 32%!! He tells me I need to eat about 1550 calories (which assumes I am lightly active, not extremely active like I am) and I should lose about 5 pounds to get down into the next category, but that 32% is actually pretty good.

I keep looking at him like he's insane and I hightail it out of there before I explode all over him.

Looking back, I should have said something such as: There is something wrong with your machine as anyone can look at me and see that my body fat is not 32% and therefore I'm not paying for this obviously flawed test. But I couldn't figure out how to say that without having hysterics. (I have this problem where I get upset about something and don't feel like I can express myself without losing control so I say nothing.)

What I should have said:

First of all, I am not "lightly active", I am "extremely active". Second, you only have to look at me to realize that 32% is a ridiculous number. I have no visible fat on my arms and legs and very little anywhere else. Plus, you are claiming that my lean tissue weight is 10 pounds lighter than when I had my last test done when I've gained muscle since then.

Of course, I said none of that. I just fumed all the way home about how I'd been ripped off of $45 and still don't know what my body fat percentage really is.

It's been interesting to me in an intellectual way to see my reaction to this test. Normally I'm all about the numbers and I would just accept them because numbers don't lie and this is an accurate test. So it's weird to be in a position where I refuse to believe a hard number.

However, I was so incensed by my experience, even though it's not like the machine was personally attacking me, that I did a little more research and I found out that the BodPod was found in studies to be + or -3% on average but that results for individuals can be off as much as 15%! 

So, in fact, it's not a very accurate test at all. In fact, you can have a body fat percentage of 17% and it might tell you that you have 32% body fat. That is a big range to be off by and it makes the test basically useless.

As a result of this experience, I have realized that my need to live by numbers needs to be balanced by common sense. Does it matter what my weight is on the scale if I'm happy with how I look? Does it matter if my body fat percentage is where I think it should be if I'm not happy with my fitness or how I look? Numbers are good for accountability but they have their limits.

Right now, no matter what my body fat percentage is, I am not happy with my weight. I want to lose some body fat from around my middle. I wanted this test to give me a handle on how much fat I should lose, but really it doesn't matter. When I get to where I like what is in the mirror, I will be happy whether that means losing two pounds or ten. 

It's nice to have a goal to shoot for though and I'm overdue for my three year follow up visit with Dr. Awesome and I'd like to be able to talk some real numbers with him. Therefore, I do plan to get my body fat tested again.

But not with a BodPod.
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