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Fitness Journal #1: Body composition and fitness goals

3 min read
Fitness Journal #1: Body composition and fitness goals
Photo by Victor Freitas / Unsplash

This is the first post in the Fitness Journal series. All posts are listed here.

1. Why body composition matters

What does it mean to be physically fit? And how do we know if we are?

The easiest and the standard answer is the Body Mass Index (BMI) (weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters). It suggests the ideal body weight range given a person's height. A BMI in the 18-25 range is considered normal weight. Above that you are overweight or obese; lower means underweight.

It's a reasonably good metric for most people, but like all indices aiming to condense the answer of a complex question to a single number, it offers an imperfect and an incomplete picture. It doesn't help after a point and is definitely not the ideal metric to track long-term fitness.

As I write this, my BMI is around 25. I got there in February 2021 after losing 20kgs over seven months. Before that, BMI categorised me as "obese". So setting a goal for my fat loss phase was easy: lose weight. Weekly measurements indicated if I was on the right path.

But even during weight loss, I knew that progress is not just about body weight. What matters more is body composition: the percentage of fat, bone, and muscle in your body.

From WebMD:

‌‌‌Body composition is important because someone else can be the same height and weight as you, but they might have more body fat and less muscle. This could lead to different health issues in them. ‌The scale won’t tell you how much of your body is made up of fat and muscle mass. But assessing body composition can help you find that. Healthier body composition is less fat and more muscle mass. Too much body fat can lead to risks like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.

This is what BMI misses: it doesn't measure body fat.

At the moment, I have between 18-20% body fat. What does that mean? Here is a body fat chart from the American Council on Exercise (ACE):

CategoryBody Fat Percentage for menBody Fat Percentage for women
Essential fat2-5%

2. Goal Setting. Exercise vs training

Since February, I have largely maintained the healthy habits I adopted during last year's fat loss phase. I exercise regularly, move frequently and eat well.

Another factor is crucial: I left Delhi and moved home to Mussoorie at end of March. Living in the mountains has only made me physically fitter. Hiking is not a touristy excursion: it's part of my daily life. I walk a lot, including elevations. And I don't think of that as an exercise. It is just something I love to do. My endurance has increased, energy levels have improved. I can feel it.

But what I feel has not translated into numbers: even though I was regular with dumbbell-based home workouts, my body composition has not changed. That does not mean what I am feeling is misguided. It simply indicates that in the broad spectrum of fitness, improvement in one aspect does not mean improvement in another.

This is why the distinction between exercise and training is crucial. In the book Bigger Leaner Stronger, Michael Matthews writes:

Exercise is physical activity done for its own sake—to burn calories or improve energy levels or mood, whereas training is a systematic method of exercising done to achieve a specific, longer-term goal, like increased strength, muscle definition, or athleticism....Exercise can make you healthier, but it guarantees nothing in the way of fat loss or muscle gain, the two biggest physiological levers you need to know how to work to build the body of your dreams.

That explains the last seven months of static measurements.

But I want to move the numbers: reduce my body fat percentage and gain muscle mass. This requires focused and strategic effort, and that's why I decided to hire a fitness coach.

What I am attempting is termed Body Recomposition: losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time. It's not the most straightforward proces, but I decided — and my coach agrees — it's worth a shot. I am excited to learn more as I progress.

For now, I am linking to two videos (a trainer had shared this with me a while ago) that explain the standard strategy for body recomposition. (Link 1, Link 2).

More soon.

Fitness Journal