Body Composition

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If you’ve read my essay about my own personal journey with sport, working out, movement and food disorders, you’ll know the goal of my site is not to help you get into what fatphobic popular culture currently deems an aesthetically appropriate body. My goal is to inspire you to find movement you love that makes you feel stronger, feel more mobile and experience joy while doing it because if it’s not fun, why waste precious life doing it?

I do live in this world though.  I know how hard it is to shift a personal mindset and also eliminate the visceral reaction we have to seeing certain bodies, including and most commonly, our own.  So why talk about body composition at all?  

It is a fact that if you are reading this, you have a body, the one physical vessel you get in this lifetime.  It is a fact it’s composed of, mostly, the same stuff as all the other bodies you see walking around this earth.  It is also a fact that each person has a totally different body than anyone else because while it’s made of the same stuff, we are all unique in how we were created.

What I hope you gain from reading this article is non-judgmental information about body composition.  I want you to have a deeper understanding of how your own body functions and get you thinking about just what sort of body you were gifted and to work with what YOU have not work towards looking like someone else.

What is Body Composition:

Body composition refers to the relative proportions of different tissues and substances that make up the human body. It involves measuring and analyzing the distribution of fat, muscle, bone, and water within an individual. 

The components of body composition include:

  1. Lean Body Mass (LBM): LBM consists of all non-fat tissues in the body, such as muscles, bones, organs, connective tissues and water.
  2. Body Fat: Body fat refers to the amount of adipose tissue present in the body, whether it’s under your skin (subcutaneous), between the organs (visceral) or in the bones (bone marrow). It serves as an energy reserve and provides insulation and protection for organs. Scientists now recognize it as an active organ in the endocrine system, which is your hormonal system that regulates just about everything in the body. Body fat is necessary for normal physiological functions.
  3. Bone Mass: Bone mass represents the weight and density of the skeletal system. If you look at the inside view of a bone they almost look like a sponge, made of tiny pores.  The bigger those spaces the less dense your bones are, which makes them weaker and more prone to breaking.  This is a super important measurement, especially as you age, because with age comes a decrease in bone density, potentially leading to osteoporosis. The goal in your youth (anything below 30 years old… I know, I too feel young at 42 but alas…)  is to increase it and as you age, to not lose what you have.  Nutrition plays a big role in improving it and not losing what you have. Weight training, not smoking and minimizing alcohol ingestion are also important.
  4. Body Water: Water is a critical component of body composition, taking up about 55-60% of your body weight. It has so many important functions but a few are:
    1. helping the liver and kidneys remove waste
    2. regulating body temperature
    3. carrying nutrients to oxygen cells
    4. lubricating joints 
    5. protecting the organs and tissues.  

Water is lost everyday through breathing, sweating and waste removal so it’s imperative to replace what you lose.  Mayo clinic recommends at least 9 cups for women and 12 for men.  If you sweat a lot, you’ll need more water than that and may I also recommend an electrolyte supplement because that salt store also needs to be replenished.  As a VERY sweaty human, I’m passionate about water intake AND electrolytes.

Ways to Measure Body Composition:

This is not an all encompassing list because some of the available methods aren’t actually accessible, with ease, to the general population.  Two of the methods don’t provide the most comprehensive view of body composition, so I’ll list those first to get them out of the way, but the last two, one of which is much cheaper and easier to access than the other, do provide a complete view of your body composition.

DXA/DEXA Scan
  1. Bioimpedance (BIA) – This method is typically used in a clinical setting, although I checked in my area and there is a device located at a gym.  This method involves a person making physical contact with sensors, possibly with feet and hands, and will measure the amount of water, both inside and outside the cells.  From there it is able to provide information on lean mass, muscle, fat and water.  There are many applications where it’s useful, like in figuring out the actual fluid levels in a person with kidney disease or monitoring body composition with cancer patients.  The challenge with this kind of test is it’s impacted by hydration levels so it may not be the most accurate.
  2. Air displacement plethysmography (ADP) – This measures body volume through air displacement within a sealed chamber.  A device you may have heard that uses this is the BodPod.  This has the same challenge as BIA where an assumption of hydration levels is used and if a person is over or above that assumption, the results won’t be accurate.
  3. Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA/DEXA) – This is the most common form of obtaining information about your total body composition.  DXA uses dual low powered x-ray beams that can differentiate fat, muscle and bone.  Unlike the above two methods, there are no hydration assumptions taken into account so it provides a more accurate calculation. This can also measure the composition of individual body parts and provide info on bone density, which makes it a more comprehensive analysis than the above two.  The machine used for DEXA is a flat, open table so those with claustrophobia can use it with little to no issue.  A downside is it does expose both the patient and practitioner to a low dose of radiation.
  4. MRI – I swear an MRI is queen of all the things.  It can detect and measure the most information about the human body, anywhere in the body.  The biggest downside to getting an MRI is it’s expensive.  I can’t imagine insurance covering a full body composition analysis unless there was absolute medical necessity and it’s a nightmare if you’re claustrophobic.  But, if there is medical necessity, there is no better, more accurate method of obtaining whatever information is needed.

Body Composition in Ayurveda – 

There is an entire science behind Ayurveda, the ancient natural medical system from India, which has been around for thousands of years. I fell in love with and benefited greatly from Ayurvedic medicine while I lived in India.  I’m just going to cover one of the key components in Ayurveda that describes the natural body type everyone is born with.  I think it’s important to cover this because as I’ve mentioned, we are born with a certain body. Trying to shape our body to something outside our natural inclination is difficult, at best, and virtually impossible at worst. Thanks to our society, we’ll go to extreme lengths attempting to fit some “ideal” mold.  In reality, there is no one ideal, there are countless ideals.

The core foundation of Ayurveda is everything is composed of natural energies, including us, that affect key components of our existence, from the psychological to the physiological.  According to Ayurveda there are five elements, space, air, water, fire and earth and the combination of those five elements create three energies, called doshas.

The doshas are Vata, Kapha and Pitta.

For a majority of the human population, one or two of the doshas is more prominent. In rare instances, there is a perfect balance between all three.  Each of these doshas has a certain body type associated with it so whichever is dominant in you, will be your natural state.  An imbalance of the doshas is absolutely normal and from an article posted in the National Library of Medicine states, “When we talk about imbalance of Doshas, we say that a person is Vata, Pitta or Kapha dominated. This does not mean an absence of the other two Doshas, but that the other two Doshas are suppressed compared to the dominant Dosha. This also does not mean that a person who is either of the Dosha dominated is not in good health. That particular dominant Dosha is his natural state of being. It is not ill health.”

What Are the Doshas

Vata

Vata is the combination of the elements space and air.

Personality Traits of Vata: 
  • Vibrant and energetic
  • Highly creative
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Flexible in decision making and behavior
  • Kind
  • Quick to learn but easily forgets
  • Multi-taskers
  • Easily over stimulated
  • Forgetful
Physical Traits of Vata: 
  • Lean and slim body
  • It’s difficult to put on weight, both fat and muscle
  • Irregular appetite
  • Dry skin
  • Fine hair
  • Have poor circulation and cold limbs
  • Hard to fall asleep and stay asleep
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Frequent gas
  • Poor bone density

Pitta

Pitta is the combination of the elements fire and water.

Personality Traits of Pitta: 
  • Strong willed
  • Natural leaders
  • Can be very direct
  • Quick to get irritable and angry
  • Goal oriented
  • Big reactions
  • Competitive
  • Athletic
  • Plagued by perfectionism (ain’t that the truth, it’s amazing this site even exists)
Physical Traits of Pitta: 
  • Medium build
  • Puts on muscle easily
  • Sweaty
  • Does not like heat
  • Has good circulation
  • Gets hangry (hungry-angry) if meals are skipped
  • Bowels are loose and frequent
  • Acid reflux
  • Prone to acne and inflammation
  • Insomnia
  • Early graying of hair

Kapha

Kapha is composed of the element earth.

Personality Traits of Kapha: 
  • Calm
  • Slow to react
  • Easy going
  • Caring
  • Loving
  • Intuitive
  • Learns slowly with high level of retention
  • Methodical
  • Shy
  • Depression
  • Not easily provoked
  • Likes routine
  • Needs motivation to act
  • Not adaptable
Physical Traits of Kapha: 
  • Bigger, solid build
  • Great bone density and puts on weight easily
  • Moves slowly and purposefully
  • Easily falls asleep and stays asleep
  • Regular bowel movements
  • Can skip meals and not be a monster
  • Oily and smooth hair and skin
  • Robust immunity
  • Respiratory issues

How To Determine Your Dosha

It’s not easy to find a legit Ayurvedic doctor in the US who can identify your dosha by your pulse, which is traditionally how it’s found. There are online quizzes available and by looking at the traits above, you can get a good idea for what dosha(s) is/are your most dominant.  

You can be dominant in any of the 3 doshas or a combination of any of the two doshas (I’m a Kapha-Pitta) and again, you can be balanced in all three but that’s rare.  

I can’t stress this enough, being dominant in any dosha is not better than any of the others. No one dosha is better for your health.  There is no dosha that is better for women or better for men.  Each dosha has their benefits and challenges and trying to fit into a body type of a particular dosha will be a struggle if it’s not how you’re born.  It’s not impossible but things will need to be sacrificed (time, money, sanity, essential nutrients, etc) and some of those things will have a much higher cost to your overall health.

Conclusion 

Now that you know more about body composition, the methods to measure it and the Ayurvedic principles regarding it, try checking out this article about respiratory health, as measured by VO2 Max and its sister article about using pranayama (yoga breathing) to help increase your respiratory health.

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.