Being a 90kg 41 year old ex-smoking 2nd Cat means I’m often racing against 70kg 21 year olds and, although I’ve had my fair share of success, I realise that even the “giants” of the pro peloton Marcel Kittel (81kg), Andre Greipel (75kg) or 6′ 6” Stijn Vandeburgh (82 kg) are only relative giants in bike racing circles. They all have one thing in common; they’re carrying around a lot less fat than me.
When you’ve lost as much weight as I have you get used to your loved ones saying things like “don’t you lose too much” or “you be careful you don’t make yourself ill”. Add to that the fact that most people I see every day both in and out of work are the wrong of that “overweight line” you see on the BMI chart at the Doctor’s (sorry Mr client if that’s a wake up call) and sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself that you need to shed more lard.
Until I get to a bike race that is.
If ever you want to be reminded of how fat you are then just rock up at an Elite/1st/2nd Cat race and look around you on the start line. You might even overhear a 62kg competitor complaining how ‘advantaged’ the 60kg guy is when it comes to the hills. Then of course there’s the 58 kg guy but I’m sure that’s just a myth, a folk story even, humans can’t be that light can they?!
It’s not just about weight though; it’s about body fat more precisely.
I have been determined this year to drop my body fat levels and I know more than enough about nutrition to do this but one thing even Cav and G (Thomas) have mentioned more than once is that it’s not the knowledge but the discipline. Anyway I reckon this year I’ve got that focus and, leading my own team for the second year now after a very successful year one I have been doing a lot of the right things to improve as a bike rider.
As January passed and February came I committed to my regime and every 7 days I stepped on the scales for my weekly weigh-in. The scales never lie but I began to wish they bloody did as the numbers didn’t budge, week in week out, from 90kg.
“Focus on the process not the outcome” I kept reminding myself. You can’t make yourself lighter. You can only determine what you do or don’t shove in your gob. I was confident in my process so I skipped the weekly weigh-in and shifted my focus solely to the bit I could change.
Control the controllables.
I felt leaner and I looked leaner in the mirror but I wasn’t prepared to burst my little bubble by bringing the oh-so-disappointing scales back into this relationship.
Until last week that was.
Steve is my client. He’s also my team mate, a good bloke, a heavy bloke (remember this is cycling heavy) and he occasionally knows best. Most clients at some stage know best. This doesn’t mean they actually know best, it just means that my method involves a little bit too much hard work, patience or discipline than they are prepared to commit to so they sometimes try to find a shortcut.
It always ends in tears, at which point I know best again and order is restored.
So, last week, Steve decided he wanted his body fat measured. Steve is very thick-skinned (no pun intended) so when I told him I’d happily tell him he was fat for half the price he convinced me by offering to pay for my test too if I gave him a lift.
Based on everything I’ve just told you, this was tempting. We discussed it over a pint and a packet of crisps (in my dreams) and agreed we’d try out the BodPod at the Medway Campus of the University of Greenwich.
Ever so quickly, here’s my take on body fat measuring:
1. Bio-electrical impedance – You know, those scales where the base has foot-shaped metal areas which you stand on barefoot? Sometimes they also have handles to hold and sometimes there is only something to hold and nothing to stand on? Either way this is sending a small electrical current through your body. Knowing that muscle contains more water than fat (you know now) and knowing that water is a good conductor of electricity (you must have known that one) then you get an idea of your fat levels by how well you conduct electricity. Huge accuracy issues depending on your levels of hydration that day.
2. Skinfold tests – Those calipers that your Personal Trainer uses to make you feel worse than you already do about your body by asking you to a) take your shirt off and b) grab hold of your rolls and measure their size. User error often problematic.
3. Underwater weighing – Considered the gold standard. I’ve never had it done and I don’t even know where you can go (but I do own a computer and it comes with something called Google).
So, when we heard about this BodPod thingy and that it was £60 we thought it was worth enquiring.
Basically it is a sealed pod (surprisingly), the air in which occupies a certain volume. When you sit in it you displace some of the air and it calculates how much air remains in there. The first amount minus the second amount equals the volume of your body.
I’d better slot BMI in here before I go on (weight in kg divided by height in meters squared of course). Done. Nothing to do with body fat!
A pound of fat occupies the space of (approximately) a pound of butter (it is fat after all) whilst a pound of muscle takes up (about) the space of a strawberry (note the healthy link, I didn’t say chocolate egg?!).
So, by weighing you before you enter the pod, we know by your volume (compared to other people of your weight) whether you’re carrying more fat or more muscle.
How accurate is this?
That did cross my mind. I’ll come back to this.
Steve is weighed first and then he gets in the pod, sits still for 45 seconds (they open the door – I assume so that he can breath) and then they do it again. Done. £60 for 90 secs. Sh*t, can I get one of these Pods on ebay for clients?
The results are in. Steve weighs 84.6kg and his body fat was 21.8%. He’s happy, we have a starting point, chips are out and we’ve set him targets (without gimmicy shortcuts of course).
I step on the scales: 86.5kg. This is encouraging. 90kg at the start of Jan. My process is working. Only wishing to brag a little, that’s now a total weight loss of 47.5kg jeeeez.
Kelly, the Senior Sports Science Technician who tested us, asked me what I thought my body fat percentage was likely to come out as. I had me down as 14-15%. 90 seconds later I’m 8.7% body fat. What happened in that pod?!! I was disappointed? Kelly was confused. If I’m already that low then how on earth will I beat the skinny guys now?!
We reassured each other by concluding that Elite male athletes are between 3% and 8% body fat and that is why I a) can still become a much better bike rider and b) am not an Elite (amongst many other reasons!) Happy again. In fact I’m pretty bloody motivated 🙂
It has been a good day. Or has it?
I’m still staggered by how low my number is, making me question the accuracy of the machine. This does not detract from the fact that I found it an interesting and inspiring experience.
It would be easy to say that as long as the machine is consistent test upon test then that’s all that matters (e.g if, weighing 86.5 kg, I now lose 0.865 kg of fat then my body fat will have dropped by approx 1%). But that is recordable on the good old fashioned scales. It is the true body fat reading that we’re interested in of course, not comparative. I’m wondering whether to cross-reference with a 4-site and 8-site skinfold test and also bio-electrical impedance but I don’t consider the latter to be accurate enough so maybe I’ll take the plunge (wait for the pun) and try underwater weighing (did you see what I did there?!).
So why am I questioning this number?
Well, the first reason is because in the lab there were photos of males and females at each percentage of fat and nearly all the people looked as lean as his/her body fat. I know there are exceptions but I can see the fat on me!
Secondly, the vast number of assumptions made by the calculations. First I need to explain a bit more about how the system works so listen carefully, here comes the science bit….
We’ve measured my weight (86.5kg) and my volume (80.2 litres).
My density is my weight divided by my volume i.e. 86.5/80.2 = 1.078
The Uni then apply a formula called the Siri formula to this number to estimate my fat, knowing that the density of fat is lower than that of muscle and bone.
The assumptions that bother me along the way:
Lung capacity/volume – the pod knows that it’s mainly air inside my lungs so assumes the volume of that air based on my age, height, gender and weight. As soon as you introduce assumptions you introduce scope for error.
What’s more, this estimate is distorted further as muscles and bones have different densities so if a person has an above average amount of bone mass then this will distort the fat estimate.
So how am I affected being broad shouldered and hipped, I don’t have osteoporosis, I’m quite buoyant in water, I score highly on lung function tests but I used to smoke? I have no idea!!!
Lastly for my height and weight the probability of this number being correct is very low in my opinion; my BMI for example is 23.2 (compared to my 8.7% bodyfat) which is a considerably large disparity considering I have very little upper body muscle mass compared to people my age who engage in other sports.
Kelly was great by the way, I must stress this; she clearly explained that the number was based on assumptions and she was a pleasure to work with.
If I’m right and I’m fatter than it says then I’ve still got fat to lose and if I’m wrong then the same applies! What’s more, either way, I’ll soon get to a weight loss of 50kg and that’s got a cool bloody ring to it. Plus it’s nearly as much as one person in my race!!
So, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and push a bit harder on those pedals while I’m at it!
Oh, before I sign off, want to know what I’m eating and drinking to do this? That’s gonna cost ya 😉