My DEXA Body Fat Scan

This morning I went to the Fitness Institute of Texas (FIT) at the University of Texas to undergo a DEXA scan to learn my body fat percentage.

I opted for the DEXA scan because I’ve gotten wonky-donk readings on skinfold assessments with the fat calipers, even though I’ve had the same person do my fat pinching every time. Prior to today, I wasn’t confident in my understanding of my true body composition.

It’s important to me to establish a baseline reading NOW because I’m committed to my current training program – two CrossFit Women classes, two heavy weight lifting sessions, and one sprint/run workout per week – for six months, when I’ll go back to FIT and have the scan done again.

I chose six months as my time frame because my body is stubborn, and until about four weeks ago, my training plan had been pretty consistent for about two years: lots of met-cons and lots of life stress. I need to give my body time to adjust to my new activities, and I really need to get off the “worrying about numbers” train. So for six months, I’m going to eat well, sleep the sleep of the righteous for 8-9 hours every night, and work as hard as I can in my workouts.

DEXA stands for dual energy x-ray absorptiometry. During the scan, two energy levels are passed through the body to analyze the composition of the body tissue. It’s like an x-ray lite. At the end of the 7-minute scan, I had a report that detailed lean tissue mass, fat mass, and bone. It was me, broken down into my component parts.

When I saw my results, I immediately thought, I’m not showing this to anyone but Dave.

I might have cried in the car on the way home.

But then I resolved to share my results with you. I told you yesterday that we’re more than the numbers we strive for every day. In my heart, I know it’s true.

There is no embarrassment or shame in a number on a scale or on a body comp chart or on a stop watch. I talked about this with Erika today and she agreed: those numbers shouldn’t be treated as secrets – they can’t hurt us. The only power those pesky little marks on a piece of paper have is the power we give them.

So you’re invited to take a look at my results in the charts below. Because these numbers are only an indication of where I am right now. Tomorrow, they’re going to start to change again because at 5:45 a.m., I’ll be in Crystal’s CrossFit Women class. Hell, they’re probably changing right now, AS I SIT HERE, because I’ve been sneakily building muscle over the last month, and tonight, while I get delicious, beautiful, restful sleep, they’re going to change some more.

Now… onto these wretched little f*ckers…
(If you click on the charts, you can see a large version.)

This first chart shows my skeleton on the left and my soft tissue on the right. Note how wonderfully blobby I look without a skeleton. Hey, all you super-lean people! The kind folks at FIT assured me that even super-lean athletes look blobby in their soft tissue scans, too. So: neener.
The graph in the upper right indicates bone density; that little black cube is me, and it shows that my bone density is very good. It’s good if T-score is between -1.0 and 1.0… mine is 1.6. Nice! We talked about this first, and this piece of good news sort of cushioned the blow about to come on the next page.

Oh! I also learned that I’m taller than I thought – or maybe I just stand up straighter now. In my stocking feet, I’m 5-feet-4-and-a-quarter, which is three-quarters of an inch taller than I’d previously thought. Neat! And, again, let’s celebrate where we can, shall we?

The next chart is where the sobering news appeared. You’ll see that my scale weight (151) and the DEXA weight match. The technicians thought that was a good thing. I did not because that officially puts me six pounds over my Weight Watchers goal weight. I know it’s old school (and “old Mel”) thinking to be hung up on the scale, so I’m having a very stern talk with that particular monster, but still… it rankles.

My BMI is 25.8, which officially puts me in the “overweight” category. Again, labeling here is a problem because BMI doesn’t take into account muscle – it’s based on height and weight. So BMI can suck it.

Waist Girth. Aaah, what a lovely phrase! Waist. Girth. Hmmmph. Moving on…

The assessment provides fat and lean numbers for arms, legs, and trunk individually, then totals them, too. My arms weigh 17 pounds! Who knew?

You can see on the chart that they also pinched me with fat calipers to compare and contrast. My DEXA total body fat % is 28.3 and my skinfold is 24.6%. They explained that the skinfold number is usually lower because it only takes into account subcutaneous fat, while the DEXA scan gets it all. Bless you, DEXA, for finding all those fat stores that were hiding in there. You’re a real peach!

FIT defines a “healthy” fat range as 21-32% for women my age. When they explained my results, they said, “You’re right in the healthy range… good job! That’s great.” I, of course, was sobbing inside because in our CrossFit world, 28.3% kinda makes me a chubbster. PotAto, PotAHto.

In these final charts, I’m the little gray cube, and these are showing how I stack up against the average of women they’ve tested, which is, admittedly, not a true average sample.My arms are slightly fattier, my abdomen is right on the average (Hooray! I’m normal!), and my legs and upper thighs are leaner than the average. (Don’t think for a second that didn’t make me strut a little bit.)

So there you have it: me, in my component parts.

Where does that leave me?

Exactly where I was before I was scanned: committed to taking great care of myself and working as hard as I can at every workout so I can continue to improve. I’m still nursing a wounded ego when I read these pages, but the facts contained within don’t change who I am or what I’m doing.

I mean, I wear a bracelet every day that says, “Never cheat, never quit.”

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Comments

  • Team CS says:

    Wow, technology and science are quite remarkable. And so are you.

    I'm really glad that you are not taking these results as a blow, but accepting it for what it is. Does it really take away all of the healthful gains you made in the past few years? Absolutely not.

    Does it discredit the fact that you are a FIRE BREATHING ATHLETE and a household name in the CFC community? No way. Does it list the number of people you've inspired, the number of people who can relate to your struggles, or the number of women who want to be you? Um. No.

    Have I made my point? I hope so.

    Do me a favor. The next time you introduce yourself to someone, say "Hi! I'm Mel. And I'm a badass."

    Also, whenever you're feeling blue use this:

    "I've got 99 problems, but my (INSERT BRAG-QUALITY SKILL) ain't one."

    So, for example one of yours could be:

    "I've got 99 problems, but my 800m run ain't one." 🙂

    Go forth and conquer Mel.
    Love you!

    Carla

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Carla, you always know just what to say. Thank you! Now get your tiny little butt back here and visit me.

    "I've got 99 problems, but my legs ain't one."

    How's that?

  • Erin Clare says:

    I was going into this post thinking I'd see some monsterous numbers. But all I saw is great results from your dogged, unrelenting focus on better health.

    However, I get that hearing "You're doing great, Mel!" doesn't mute the "Numbers Monster" inside. It doesn't kick the "Comparison Monster" in the nuts either (regarding the body fat %age of CrossFitters). As much effort as you put into your daily routine of diet and fitness, I would probably be have thrown a huge "What. The. F*ck." tantrum and cried as I stared at myself in the mirror.

    But this is Erin-on-the-outside talking and observing. I guess I just want to tell you how great it makes me feel to see how well you are doing. It makes me feel good not just for this bit of news or for just today, but everyday. It makes me feel good to know there is a real life individual I know and see every single day who is busting her ass in all the right ways to overall better physical fitness and health.

    I always watch you while you work out. I'm always watching your form to see what I'm doing wrong. I spend time watching your face to see the determination you call up when you think you're out of gas. I watch you so that I can learn to be better, even though I'll never be you. And I may never be able to do a beautiful dead hang like you can.

    And that last paragraph makes me sound like I'm a bit of a stalker…

    And now I'm going to quote one of the greatest quotes I have heard in the last few years: "Stop picking on my friend Mel".

    I love you. 🙂

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Erin, I love you back! You are my favorite stalker (well… 2nd favorite, after that guy on the bus who emailed me and said he likes to watch me read…)

    I love having you in class because some day, I will catch you on the damn run. I will! Some day. Maybe I'll punch you in the gunt, THEN outrun you.

    Numbers, schnumbers. With people like you and Carla on my team, how can I fail?

  • CrossFitChron.com: Lindsey and Web Smith says:

    Wow! Both of us are so curious as to where we would fall now. I have always assumed that I was sub 13 and Web was sub 9. Maybe not!

    Hats off to you for facing the truth and then reevaluating your goals to succeed. That is exactly what Web wrote about yesterday at our site. How much did this cost???

    We want to try it next time that we are there.

    Lindsey

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hi, Lindsey!

    It's $90 for non-UT students. Visit this link for all the details: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/fit/bodycompfit.php

    You will LOVE that facility. They also do VO2 max testing and a bunch of other assessments. The space is really cool — nice springy floor and barbells. I wanted to do handstands and lifts!

    Let me know if y'all do. Now I'M curious about your results 😉

  • erikajeanne says:

    MEL! Great post dear, really, truly. I'm proud of you for stepping out there with this information. For every person who emails you and says that your post helped them, there are two more who probably feel the same and remain quiet.

    In an act of solidarity, I'll be posting my results from yesterday's body comps today, and when I get my fancy schmancy scan, I'll post that too.

    These numbers hold us accountable, but in no way undermine our hard work. You have come a long way, and made incredible progress. Do not forget that :o)

    xoxox Keep up the good work xoxox

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Thank you, Erika! I can't wait to see your results; I have good vibes about them.

    And thank you, too, for talking me off the ledge yesterday via email. Much appreciated.

  • Megan Parsons says:

    Thank you for sharing and putting it out there! This blog post will provide more accountability than you can imagine. I love your attitude and commitment. The DEXA is a great tool, yet so humbling. Keep me posted on your progress. I MISS YOU!!!

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Megan! I miss you, too. Consider yourself hugged.

  • Denise says:

    I'm about a year late seeing this…

    The 32% = obesity is from the American Council on Exercise. They uses a VERY high standard for measuring "obesity". The grid they use is age and gender biased and "favors" men and young people.

    It is also based on those wonky calipers. The ACE also have ridiculous standards for "underweight" or "essential fat".

    The NIH, WHO, and US Military use a different (and healthier!) standard. And it is based on DEXA tests.

    I have links and stuff on my website.

    PS… I tested at 27.9 – I feel your pain. But the NIH standards will make you feel better.

    Best wishes!

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi!!
    I loved reading your story… I'm going for a DEXA today… in a little over an hour, Actually. I am pretty anxious about it actually. I am a "former bodybuilder who has regained weight. A lot of weight.

    I'm scared to see the DEXA, but I NEED to know!!! I have had other testing done with screwy results. 5 days ago, my naturopath did a BIA, and it came back at 47%!!!!! I said I gained weight, but COME ON!!! I don't look anywhere near a "Biggest Loser" contestant!!! I then later looked around on line and found several reports that BIA can be very unreliable as it actually uses your hydration status as a key variable. Also, I am told that it can be very inaccurate in muscular individuals. Former bodybuilder, remember??

    Needless to say, I am so happy that I found your blog. I am going into the scan with a much more positive outlook… no matter what the numbers say.

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hey, Anonymous! Good luck with your scan… I think it's great to have some 'science' as a benchmark, but remember: You are a whole, awesome human being — numbers can't begin to describe all that makes you YOU.

    Be sure to let me know how it goes!

  • Lizzie says:

    Hi!

    I came across this website after having my own DEXA scan and crying all evening, so I feel your pain. I am not an extremely fit person, I just had to do the scan for a student’s master’s thesis as a volunteer.

    I am 5’6″ 153 lbs. and have always been athletic but have let myself go in the past couple of years. I came out at a whopping 41% and it took everything in me to hold back the tears until after I got out of the facility. According to the “Centile” portion, I am in the 95% for women my age. It made me feel a lot better to see that that percentile might actually be skewed. Especially since I do not consider myself to look “fat” at all (although I guess I proved that looking fat and having a high fat percentage are two VERY different things).

    One other thing that might make us and others feel better… I know that DEXA is the most accurate, but my researcher kept saying that if testing with BIA, the top of the healthy % is 30%, whereas with DEXA the top is 38%, so “I was just a little over the healthy range”. I’m still not sure how this works, but my BIA reports that I am at 27%, so I’m kind of thinking that perhaps I don’t have to go as far as I thought in order to be in an “adequate” body fat percentage range. She told me she would send me an email about this explaining further, so I’ll keep you posted on what I find out.

    What I took that it might be is this: there is an 8% difference between DEXA and BIA, and all those reports on the internet are based on BIA, so considering the ACE tables, your 28% would actually be a 20%, putting you in the “athlete” category rather than the “average” category. I don’t know that this is exactly right, but it did make me feel better.

    Also, your post made me feel a lot better about the fact that I am NOT just a number, and that the pursuit of health is important in and of itself. I had almost decided to “just give up”, but you’ve inspired me to not let the numbers get me down. So thank you, you have no idea what a service this provided.

    • Mel says:

      Lizzie, I’m so glad you found this post and commented. I’m sorry to hear you had a rough time after your DEXA scan — and it is SO important that you remember it’s just a number that measures a PHYSICAL characteristic. It is NOT a measure of your value — your fabulousness as a living, breathing, feeling, beautiful, complex human being.

      I think measurements like this can be a tool for measuring one aspect of “progress,” but they measure only ONE aspect.

      I hope you’re feeling better today. Never give up yourself — and especially never give up on yourself based on some external measure. YOU matter, numbers don’t.

      Keep me posted on how you’re doing!

    • mai says:

      hi lizzie,

      i did my dexa scan and came out with 37% body fat percentage but what is this different percentage scaling?

  • Jason Jarman says:

    HI, We actually offer DEXA body fat composition testing here in central Austin as well. $75.00 a person or $49.00/per person for a group of 6 or more. Call Jason @ 512-420-2919 to schedule.

  • Hi
    Everyone must note that there is no tried and true way to measure body composition. Even hydrostatic weighing is not 100% accurate. All methods of measuring body composition have a certain degree of inaccuracy. If you are training to lose a certain amount of body fat then this the best way to find out what you have achieved, as long as you get a second test done to compare the first test with. There is no human error with a scan as opposed to skin fold callipers. Get the second scan done under similar conditions, i.e; hydrated, as there have been a lot of speculation about the results you will get, hydrated vs dehydrated.