Size Doesn’t Always Matter: How to Measure Whether Your Body is Healthy

The FIRM Master Instructor Team by The FIRM Master Instructor Team | October 1st, 2009 | 1 Comment
topic: Fitness, Health & Wellness, Weight Loss


By The FIRM Master Instructor Kirsten Palmer

Have you heard the awful rumor that clothing manufacturers use “vanity sizing”?  It turns out it’s true. They’ve adjusted their sizes to fit our expanding waistlines. What that means for you is that, without changing your weight or measurements at all, you might suddenly fit into a size 8 when you never could before. Or, you could have gained five or so pounds, but not notice it (or want to notice it) because you can still buy the same size clothes.

Why? Because it motivates you to buy, of course! It’s frustrating to think of all the ways that both the media and the producers of the goods we buy manipulate us. But, while learning that our size-8 jeans may not be such a weight-loss coup after all, dress size and other measurements can be much better tools than weight for determining success.

What does dress size tell us?

Ask yourself this: Would you rather lose 15 pounds or drop two dress sizes? By improving your body’s metabolism — adding muscle and losing fat — you can shrink in size without changing your weight. I, for one, would rather be smaller than weigh less. Who can tell how much I weigh? Others can tell, however, if I fit in my clothes better or if I have a brand-new wardrobe a size or two smaller. They can certainly see a spring in my step, a smile on my face and a little more confidence in the next office meeting.

Another way that dress size can be useful is to simply track changes, regardless of what the actual size is. Go out and buy that great-looking one-size smaller (whatever that may be) little black dress, bikini or pricey jeans, and try it on regularly. Fitting into it is the best motivation I can think of to stick to your diet and exercise routine.

Underlying this revelation about “vanity sizing” is the deeper issue of vanity itself. It’s important, I believe, to stay ever-mindful of body image in general. Our bodies are more than simply a hanger for great-looking clothes, a superficial evaluation of our beauty, or a way to negatively compare ourselves to other women (friends, relatives and even celebrities). Our bodies are the instruments through which we enjoy life. And the healthier our bodies are, the happier we will be — no matter the size.

What numbers should we track?

So what numbers can you track if you want to monitor your health and the results from your hard work and focus?


Tracking your measurements is a little similar to tracking your weight loss by the way your clothes fit, but pulling out the measuring tape and noting the numbers from your arms to your calves gives you a complete picture of the positive effects of exercise. While smaller calves or arms may not be your goal, changes in those parts of the body help you see that you are making progress and to stay on course. Further, changes in your measurements without a change in the scale indicate that you are increasing muscle mass while losing fat — a big plus!

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is an often used but somewhat controversial number indicating whether you are “underweight,” “healthy,” “overweight” or “obese.” The number is determined through an equation using your height and weight. A doctor or other health professional can quickly determine your BMI with a chart, and it is, therefore, an easy way to quickly gauge your physical health.

However, if the number doesn’t seem quite right to you, don’t stop with BMI. It was originally designed to study populations, rather than individuals. And for this reason, there are a couple of problems with it: Very muscular people and tall people may skew heavier than they really are. On the other hand, you could be “healthy” or even “underweight” but actually have a high percentage of body fat if you are very sedentary.

Body fat percentage

This is an excellent number to measure health. You will need the help of a personal trainer who can determine it through the use of calipers. More reliable and costly forms of determining body composition are hydrostatic (underwater) weighing and DXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry). These might be something you would pursue if you don’t trust the results the calipers give you, particularly if you get wildly different measurements during visits to the trainer.

Finally, although the body fat scales you see in stores are not very accurate, they can help you monitor changes. The key to using them is to get your measurement under exactly the same circumstances each time: same time, room temperature, same conditions before you weigh, etc. Don’t work out before and make sure the surface is clean.

Blood pressure and cholesterol

While these aren’t particularly sexy numbers, they are useful to track your health. Many people who follow a regular exercise routine and healthy diet report significant improvements in both their blood pressure and cholesterol, often being able to change their medication or stop taking it entirely. This isn’t true for everyone, of course, but changes in these numbers are worth celebrating, no matter how small.

the-firm-logoThe FIRM Master Instructor Team blog is shared courtesy of The FIRM Believers Club, an online community that helps you reach your fitness goals. With maximum-efficiency home workouts, support and motivation from The FIRM Master Instructors, daily tips, personalized workout rotation calendars, and access to other members through discussion boards, The FIRM Believers Club provides all the tools you need to get in the shape you want.


  1. [...] get me wrong. The BMI can be a helpful tool, but the numbers can also be very deceiving. Take three women, all the same height and each weighing 140 pounds. They may have very different [...]

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