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The Outdoor Athlete Book by Courtenay and Doug Schurman



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Tanita Body Fat Scales: Accurate or Not?

Q: Are Tanita Body fat scales accurate? How do they measure body fat?

A: If you are someone who gets motivated by having specific, measurable goals, and you want to track some numbers related to your overall health and fitness, rather than turning to your regular scale, you might want to pay more attention to your body fat percentage.

When you first start a fitness program, you may find that you lose a few pounds in the first few weeks. Or worse, you may engage in a fairly rigorous program and see increased definition and fit better in your clothes, but no change in the scale weight. Why? Please try to remember that muscle weighs more than fat, so even though you have started to work out consistently, you're setting yourself up for problems if you only look at total weight, which can (for some people) fluctuate as much as 3-5 pounds in a single day. What exactly is that weight lost or gained: water, lean muscle mass, or fat tissue? Your regular scale can't tell you. A body fat scale might.

Tanita Body fat scales run anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on whether you want a single-user scale or multiple-user scale. They use Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) to determine the amount of fat on your body. Other common methods for measuring body fat include densitometry (underwater weighing) and skinfold caliper measurements (this will be a topic we'll delve into in more depth in a later issue). Since fat is low-impedance and muscle and water are high impedance, the scale determines what percentage of your body mass is fat versus muscle. If you compare the numbers you get from densitometry, skinfolds, and BIA, there will probably be some disparity. The key is to pick one method and use it consistently, with the same test administrator, for increased accuracy and validity, and for better relative comparison over time.

Women, take note -- a woman's body generally has about 5% more fat than a man's body. Recommended body fat charts show this difference, so the ideal body fat recommendations for men and women differ accordingly. Women also retain more water during certain parts of the menstrual cycle, which directly affects measurement of body fat percentage. Even on a given day, your levels of hydration can change significantly, which can throw off the measurement. The Tanita scale seems to overestimate body fat by as much as 7%.

All that having been said, it is still a pretty good way to assess RELATIVE changes over several months. Other ways to assess progress, of course, include how you feel in your clothes (including body measurements), overall energy levels, performance in your sport or activity of choice, and attainment of your specific goals.

If you are an athlete and you are more interested in changes in body composition (vs. "weight"), or if you desire frequent feedback to keep you motivated as you start into a fitness program, the Tanita scale might be a good investment. If you tend to be a little obsessive about your weight, and use the numbers for other purposes (e.g. to tell you you've been "good" or "bad" or for any other such emotional reasons) then your best bet is to pass on the Tanita scale.



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