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Measure your progress!

Exercise Health Psychology

Written by:
Birgitte Nymann ( www.nymanns.dk )
Author, speaker and educator within Exercise, health, nutrition and motivation. Concept – and seminar developer at Pro Academy, Denmark. Educated and trained in sport from University of Copenhagen.

Being able to measure if your efforts to live a healthier life bear fruit may be immensely motivating, turning life-style changes into permanent habits. When you start changing your habits you usually quickly feel a difference but after a while, the development seems to stall. If you continue to live a healthy life, however, you will always move in the right direction. The changes will be less noticeable, though, because they happen gradually. To keep motivated it may be a good idea to set yourself some fixed targets.

Fitness and strength are elements that are difficult for us to measure because we do not have access to laboratories. Whether you have become more fit should be measured in your everyday life. Have you become more energetic? Can you manage to do more? Do you recover your breath more quickly after exerting yourself? Has the infiltration in your neck disappeared? You can also choose to do the test run described at the end of this article.
By contrast, it is easier to measure if you have obtained a weight loss.

Body measurements, body weight and body fat percentage are measures that will tell you if you loose weight or not. You can ask your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband or friend to help you do the body measurements, or you can try to do them yourself. Choose to do the measurements at places you are sure to find again.

Examples of body measurements:

Upper arm:
Measure your upper arm in the middle. Take the tape measure and measure around your upper arm.

Chest:
Put the tape measure just above your nipples and around your body without pushing it up or down.

Abdomen:
Put the tape measure just above your navel and around your body without pushing it up or down.

Hips:
Put the tape measure right before your crotch where your legs "meet" and around your body without pushing it up or down.

Thighs/buttocks:
Put the tape measure around your thigh at groin level.

Or find other places to measure. What is most important is to do the measurements at places you are sure to find again. A variation of just 1 cm up or down compared to the previous measurement may greatly distort the picture of your results. You should therefore do the measurements accurately and carefully.

Weighing – good or bad?
Your body weight can be used to measure if you loose weight by kilos, which does not necessarily mean that you loose fat. If you need to loose 5 kilos or more you can use your bathroom scale to measure if you loose weight because in that case, you need to get your weight down. If you want to loose 1-5 kilo of fat, your weight will not necessarily go down much even if you loose fat, especially not if you combine changes in your diet with training. This is due to the fact that you accumulate more fluid in your body when you start training and start eating differently. At the same time, the total amount of blood in your body is increased when you do fitness training regularly, and little by little, the total mass of your muscles is also increased – and it all weighs. In this context, body measurements are far better indicators of whether you lose weight or not.

Weigh yourself at the same time every week, for instance every Friday morning, to compare your body weight measurements. If you do it every day you will see that your body weight varies a lot, which is quite natural. Over a week, you will see if your weight goes up or down or is stable.

Measurement of body fat percentage
The most accurate way to measure if you are overweight is to measure your body fat content. The body needs a minimum amount of fat on the outside to be fit. In general, women need to have a higher body fat percentage than men. The body fat percentage tells you how big the fat content is in proportion to your total body weight.
Body fat can be measured in three different, reliable ways, stated here by way of priority:

  1. DEXA-scanning. Performed in laboratories only. Here you lie down, having your entire body scanned. The scan determines the body composition of fat, lean body mass (muscles, inner organs, blood etc.) and bone mineral content and can also measure bone strength/density. The scanning is expensive, time-consuming and almost impossible to have done unless you participate in a scientific study.
  2. Under-water weighing. Performed in laboratories only. Weighing is done by lowering a person in a vessel filled with water, and the body composition is calculated in proportion to the volume of water displaced. This kind of weighing is comparatively expensive and is likewise performed in a few places in the country only.
  3. Bioelectric impedance analysing. Can be done at your GP's or at a fitness centre. The measurement is typically done this way: You stand on a device that looks like a bathroom scale, having the electric conductivity through your body measured. Your body composition is calculated on the basis of muscle conductivity and information entered about your height, weight, age, gender etc. The method is comparatively cheap and therefore the one used most by ordinary people. In hardware stores you may find a variety of gadgets that look like bathroom scales and are also a kind of bio-impedance analysers. They are not accurate but the more expensive ones are the best and most accurate. All things being equal, results prove very incorrect and bioelectric impedance analysing therefore gives nothing but a very rough estimate of a body's fat percentage.

Seen from the point of view of health perspectives, the body fat percentage should be 20 to 35 per cent for women and 10 to 20 per cent for men.

Test your fitness improvement
Find a route that you measure to be about 2 to 3 km long. Run or cycle the route at your ordinary training pace (that is, you need to warm up before starting the test) and time the amount of time you use. If you have just started jogging you can jog and walk alternately, if necessary. What is most important is to run/walk as usual when training.

Cycle or run the route as fast as you can, not leaving any possibility of squeezing more calories out of your legs once you have finished, and time yourself.
Now you have your own fitness test. After a month of training, do the test again. Start by running/walking/cycling the distance at your ordinary training pace and then as fast as you can. Compare the times and see how much you have improved. Remember that with such a short distance, even small improvements are a big step forward.

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