This is going to sound strange: recently, I’ve had two separate discussions (debates? arguments?) with two separate people on the oddest of topics – my body fat percentage. Yes, this is what passes as lunch conversation here at work. I told of how I was currently measuring it — my Tanita scale (which – admittedly – is not necessarily accurate) and using body measurements and 3 different calculations that I averaged to derive body fat percentage (this is an example of one such method). They were all in the same ballpark, so I figured that it was about right.
“Not so fast!” these two people intoned (not at the same time, but that would have been pretty freaky cool seeing as how the conversations happened days apart). They both looked at me and couldn’t fathom how the number could be hitting around 30%. I laughed at them good-naturedly, knowing that a very fashionable, drapey t-shirt frequently hides the worst of my body fat sins. *I* knew that 30% was completely possible. I mean, really – all you have to do is ask all my friends at Culvers what their opinions are and I bet you find people who will side with me on this issue.
But in the name of science and fairness (and something new to write about), I thought it was time to get a real body fat test done. You know, the gold standard: the dunk tank.
Now, if you’ve been coming here awhile, you know that water is not my friend. From my first triathlon where I found that hyperventilation and swimming don’t mix (surprising, no?) to this season where having said that I’m not seriously racing apparently means that I don’t ever need to climb in the pool, I’ve had a troubled relationship with the element that’s supposed to be my strong suit (I *AM* a Pisces, you know).
So, the idea of having to submerge myself to get an accurate body fat test result wasn’t really my cup o’ tea, but the price was right and the challenge had been made and I couldn’t back down. I called and made the appointment at UIC’s Human Performance Lab (which, for whatever it’s worth, made me feel slightly rat-like). The appointment came with lots of rules: no fruit/vegetables/fiber for 24 hours before the test, no eating at all for 4 hours before the test, and come in wearing the skimpiest, tightest, sleaziest bathing suit you own (I’m paraphrasing that last rule, but that’s exactly what they meant). The idea is that any air that’s either in you (stomach/intestines) or trapped on you (in your bathing suit) is read as additional – and erroneous – body fat. And, lord knows, we wouldn’t want THAT!
Twenty-four hours before starting, I nixed the fruits and vegetables and all things healthy from my diet. Let me just say – that was harder than I thought it would be! Many, many good foods have fiber in them, as it turns out. I survived on a mostly-dairy diet… plain yogurt, eggs, cheese. It was a very mono-colored diet. Blah. Ice cream would have been included in this diet if only I weren’t doing the whole, crazy no sugar thing right now… what a waste of a good excuse to eat ice cream, you know?
On the day, I arrived on the campus of UIC a little nervous about what was going to happen. I knew the basics of the procedure, but no real details to fill in the gaps of my knowledge, and the not knowing was making me a little edgy. My hydrostatic weighing tour guide for the day was a personal trainer named Vito. With his understated brand of humor, he immediately put me at ease, assuring me that “hardly ever does anyone panic and drown when we do this”.
After putting my not-so-skimpy, not-so-sleazy one-piece bathing suit on (hey! – I’m a triathlete – it’s all I own), I met Vito in the weighing room. The tank was about 4’x4′ square and perhaps 6′ deep (just guess-timating here). It didn’t look terribly foreboding (little did I know!). Vito took some measurements (height/weight) and calibrated the machine, and then in I went!
I took a seat in the water on some PVC tubing, my head just above water, and Vito explained the procedure for the test: first, exhale ALL the air in your lungs, either above or below water. Then, put your head completely underwater. As you start to float a bit, anchor yourself to the PVC tubing with your hands — though, he cautioned me against keeping a death grip on the tubing, since that would skew results — and NOT in my favor. And then, Vito would watch for air bubbles, and as soon as they stopped, you had to stay there for 4 seconds until being told that it was okay to pick your head up.
Okay, so this is the picture: no air in your lungs. Breath held. Head underwater. At this point, these will be the LONGEST FOUR SECONDS of your life. Trust me on this. Try it now, just on dry land. Go ahead. I’ll wait….
Breathe out. All the way. Hold it now! 4……. 3……. 2…………………………. 1…………………………
See? Not too comfortable, was it? Add water to the mix, and it was completely, utterly unnerving the first time through.
In fact, along with the instructions Vito also made it absolutely clear that at any point if I was uncomfortable underwater, that I should pick my head up. During the first test, I came to the end of my rope, wondering why the hell he was leaving me in there to drown and picked my head up – luckily at the same exact time, he also shouted that I was done with that round of testing. As I pulled my head out of the water and gasped for air, I managed to suck in about half the tank. And then after the coughing fit, and then calming myself down, it was off to go through more trials.
The way the test works is that body fat is measured by the displacement of the water. Any air — in your lungs or even trapped by your swimsuit — will cause more water to be displaced, and therefore your body fat will read higher. Because expelling all of your air is not necessarily something you either get right the first time, or are able to consistently repeat, the test is done a minimum of 3 times and results averaged. After that, if your results are consistent, you might go another round or two. If not, you test until the results are consistent or you cry uncle.
After the first miserable go-round at it, I was really nervous about having to do this a dozen times before getting sound results – wouldn’t that be just my luck? But – on this day – luck was with me. Even though Vito wasn’t sure I was expelling all my breath, at least I did it exactly the same way 4 times in a row — and very little variance meant that I was done!
I shakily climbed out of the tank as Vito started printing out reports. He asked if I wanted to see the results right then, or if he should keep me in suspense until I dried off, changed and met him back in his office. Not anticipating stellar results, I decided to wait – and plus, I had no desire to have a conversation while sopping wet and shivering, with that dunk tank kind of laughing at me in the background.
Back in Vito’s office, the time came for the big reveal. He decided to play with me a bit, asking me what I thought the number was going to be. I explained how my Tanita and other methods routinely put me at about 30%, but that I was willing to think that perhaps that might not be too accurate and perhaps it might be as low as maybe 27%.
He had been starting to hand the papers over to me as I was talking, and when I said that, he stopped, pulled his hand back and remarked, “Really? You thought that high??” as if I were a body fat idiot (which – apparently – I am). It was here that I got my first indication that perhaps, just maybe, possibly, other people had been right.
And what you’ve been waiting for (and have read this far down to find, presumably!) — drum roll, please…
The result: 21.2%.
I think the Tanita company owes me some of my self-esteem back for totally lying to me for the past 2 years. Can you sue for something like that? On the other hand, it’s gratifying to see how much body fat I must have burned holding my breath for that long…!