“How much weight did you lose?” I overheard one female member ask another.  “How much weight did you gain man?” one male lifter asks another as he exits the scale.  I believe that these two phrases are the most over-used phrases in the world of health and fitness.

Yes, stepping on the scale will tell you how much you weigh on planet earth, but it does nothing to tell you about your present state of health, wellness or fitness.

It appears most of the population is concerned about decreasing their weight;  records show that people in United States spend, on average, $40 billion a year to “reduce their weight”.  My experience with my clients as well as the general public is that people are confused as to what it is that they are trying to reduce or get rid of – body weight or body fat.  Unfortunately these terms are HUGELY misunderstood, and sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. 


To get us started on the right foot, let me first clarify the difference between all of the important terms.  Body weight is nothing more than the measure of the gravitational pull of planet earth on your body.  Whereas body fat, refers to how much of your total body weight is made up of fat.  Then there is lean mass which refers to your muscles, bones, connective tissue, and organs.  The remainder falls into the fat category. 

There are two types of fat:

(1) Essential fat which is required for normal physiological functioning and is stored in the bone marrow, the lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, and other major tissues and organs; and (2) Storage fat which lies beneath the skin (subcutaneous) and serves as insulation, as a nutritional reserve, and protects internal organs from trauma.  It is the sum of these two fat categories that dictates your overall body fat percentage (%).


Unfortunately it appears that most of us are only concerned with height versus weight scales and charts used by Life Insurance Companies since 1959, largely because these were the only initial indicators developed to assess health.   However a wealth of information about body composition (lean mass to fat ratio) and its relationship to overall health and wellness have come along since that time that are better indicators of health fitness, and wellness.

Just to put this in perspective, I was told by my insurance company that I was overweight according to my last doctors’ visit.  They informed me that I would have to pay a higher monthly rate in order to stay insured by them.  Mind you I am 5’8”, 207lbs. with 9% bodyfat.  I circuit train with free weights and enjoy boxing regularly.  My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol both good and bad are very low.  But the only thing the insurance company was concerned about was my weight to height number on their scale.  Never mind that all other indicators suggest that I am very healthy.

Now at first glance it may not seem all that important to distinguish between the two – body weight versus body fat.  Especially in a world that seems to be obsessed with being thin.  But being thinner is not an indicator of being healthier.  You can have two people that weigh 135 lbs.  One person has 15% body fat (20lbs. fat), while the other person has 30% body fat (40lbs. fat). What that means is that the person with 15% body fat is having an easier time carrying their body weight around in their daily activities because they have more muscle to do the job.  This obviously suggests that, all things being equal, they have a better chance at a longer life expectancy than someone who is carrying extra body fat.  If for no other reason than the person at 15% is, over time, experiencing less wear and tear on their joints, will have a better overall energy level, and mobility.

But let’s take it one step further.  As I discuss in my article on Stress and Weight Loss, excessive body fat has been correlated to coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis and certain forms of cancer.  So let’s be clear, while body fat is not a full- proof indicator of health, it is definitely putting you in the right direction to focus on, rather than body weight.  So the question now becomes, are you overweight or overfat?  Remember overweight is based on your height only, while overfat refers to your body fat percent in relationship to your overall body weight.


Body composition refers to the ratio between your lean mass and body fat.  Below I have included a chart that provides general ranges for both men and women.



Essential Fat

10 – 12%

2 – 4%


14 – 20%

6 -13%


21 -24%

14 –17%


25 -31%

18 -25%


32% and up

26% and up

This chart gives you a general idea of the ranges you should consider when considering what level of health, wellness, and fitness you are striving towards.

There are several ways to calculate your body fat percentage.

1.)   Hydrostatic Weighing Test:  Considered the Gold Standard by many, this test requires you to sit on a scale inside a tank of water and blow out as much air as you can from your lungs. 

2.)   Skinfold or Pinch Test:  Calipers are used to measure skin fold thickness in various parts of the body.  Body fat is then determined by computing the results using a formula. This is one of the testing measurements I use for my clients.

3.)   Bioelectrical Impedance Test:  A special scale is used to pass a harmless signal/ current from hand to foot.  The signal will travel faster if there is less fat in the body.  This is the other measurement tool I use for my clients.

4.)   BMI:  The most popular, because it is the most accessible.  Beware however as this does not take into account gender and age, which are very important.  This is the weight to height scale I discussed above.  Click here to figure your own BMI.

Ultimately when using any of these measurement devices to determine body fat to body weight a note of caution must be used.  These are not full – proof devices; each comes with its own amount of error built in.  The goal is to get a number that you track over time to provide you with insight as to whether your health, wellness, and fitness program is helping you get healthier or not.


As some of you read this you are saying, “fine, I’ll just cut my calories back, or do such and such diet and I’ll lose weight”.  And to a minor degree you would be correct.  However, after being in the health, wellness, and fitness industry for over 20 years I can tell you just cutting calories is the slowest way to achieve lasting weight loss towards improved health.

For one, just cutting calories, if you not working with a certified nutritionist or dietician, in many cases leads to your body consuming its lean mass (muscle) for energy.  This results in your body’s metabolism slowing down; which in turn slows down how quickly you will shed those unwanted pounds.  Your muscles are the horses that power your body into movement.  If you decrease that horsepower you will burn fewer calories as the body tries to protect itself from starvation. 

This is a typical response to the calories in versus calories out idea.  While it is true that if you eat less calories than you burn you will lose weight.  But it is also true that if you are not eating the right types of calories you will get rid of weight that will actually slow your progress towards weight loss.

Let me quickly try to explain why this is so, as it seems so many people are in fact confused about this issue of drastically reducing their calories and not getting results. Depending on where your ancestors came from, they dealt with periods of caloric deprivation.  What I mean is that if your ancestors lived close to North or South Pole they had to deal with growing ice sheets that made food less available.  If your ancestors lived close to the equator then they had to deal with issues of drought and again, that made food less available.  So during those periods of less available calories (caloric deprivation) on which to survive, the body had to adapt.  It did this by learning to slow it’s metabolism down in order to make sure that we survived.  This was a survival mechanism that kept our species alive. So when you skip meals or drastically reduce your calories, you are in a sense telling your body to slow down your metabolism because calories are scarce. 

The unfortunate part of this is that when you do this the body goes for the most nutrient dense tissues in order to make up for that caloric deprivation.  When the body is choosing between lean mass (muscle) and fat, lean mass contains more nutrients.  So typically your body will go here to get the calories it needs to survive.  This means, as I mentioned above, as the body consumes its own muscle to survive it also slows the metabolism you are trying to rev up to lose weight.  Thus skipping meals is counter productive to losing weight and in fact works against your goal in the long run.

When working with my clients I explain this issue to them and then make clear the importance of consuming 5 -6 meals each day.  This allows you to maintain your muscle, keep your metabolism revved up as well as not feel hungry through out the day. 

Along with consuming regular meals through out the day I am a big believer in the use of exercise (cardio as well as resistance exercise) in order to speed up the weight loss process.  Research continues to show that utilizing exercise in addition to a well rounded nutrition schedule actually assists in losing weight faster.  And what’s more important is that it is the weight you want to get rid of – body fat!

Specifically utilizing resistance exercises stimulates the muscles in order to maintain your lean mass, while utilizing cardio assists in burning extra calories.  The two done together ensure that you, while using a well rounded nutrition program, will watch your body fat % drop steadily.

For more information on this topic please order my 20 of the Most Frequently Asked Fitness Questions CD, where I go into more detail.

Now when I say exercise I don’t only mean joining a gym.  Perhaps you can start with: taking the stairs at work rather than the elevator, or when safe, park further away from the entrance and walk utilize hobbies that include physical activity (gardening, dancing, hiking) Think of it this way. If you burned 100 more calories per day, which is equivalent to walking approximately 1 mile each day (15 minutes), and kept this up without changing your nutrition.  You could stand to lose 10 lbs in one year.

When working with my clients I strive to create custom meal programs that they can stick to, as well as exercise programs that are personalized to their unique level of fitness.  Doing this drastically increases how fast they lose weight and keep it off. If you have any questions or would like some help in creating a customized nutrition and exercise program visit my website at http://www.energyfxfitness.com or contact me at (310) 397-0089.  It’s time you had the success you deserve!

About the author:

Kurt Elder MSW, CPT is a Fitness Consultant and Results Coach. Kurt has been in the health, fitness and wellness industry for over 20 years.  He has been a practicing psychotherapist, competitive athlete, and world record holder. He holds a certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine.  Kurt is currently the owner and operator of Energy F/X Fitness Consultants.  Kurt is a highly sought after authority in rehab and sports conditioning as well as weight loss.  His approach, aided by his unique background, allows an experience of total transformation for his clients. Kurt may be contacted at http://www.energyfxfitness.com or call me at (310) 397-0089.