It was in the Fall of 2011 that I was rushing out of a stressful meeting to my company-sponsored health check-up. My blood pressure was too high, I was at least twenty pounds overweight and my cholesterol and triglycerides were off the chart. After the physical tests, I answered the questionnaire about lifestyle. I was warned that I had the highest possible risk of developing heart disease. A wise man once told me: “if you don’t like the results, change what you are doing”.
I got out of a toxic work environment, controlled my diet and started doing daily aerobic exercise. I bought a Withings scale and a Fitbit. I weighed myself every day and tracked my steps diligently. In nine months, my weight went from 200 lbs to 175 lbs and my waist went from ~38–39 in. to 36 in. The weight loss caused everyone to ask, with a concerned look on their faces, if I was “ok” . Apparently, the weight loss didn’t leave me looking healthier!
Even if I didn’t look healthier, I wondered if there were quantitative measures of my health that didn’t require a blood test or doctor’s visit for markers like cholesterol. Body fat seemed like a promising measure…at first. The Withings scale does an impedance measurement which gives you an estimate of body fat. However, I could get 100% variations just based on whether I decided to be in “Normal” or “Athlete” mode. Still, I held onto the hope that this could be marginally useful as a relative measure. I chose the “Athlete” mode and was reassured that after I lost weight, the reported body fat went from 15% to 11%. A few more percent and I would be matching top athletes.
As it turned out, this product was designed more for ease of use for consumers than accuracy. In the years to follow, my weight remained more or less the same, but I was clearly reducing body fat — my waist size had dropped from ~36in. to ~34in. Yet the Withings scale told me my body fat percentage had somewhat increased.
What I discovered was that the biggest variable that affected the body fat measurement was how late I had eaten the previous night. This occurred because I always measured myself right after I woke up. I realized that while the body fat % reported by the Withings scale was ok as a relative measure in the short term, it was no good as a proxy for my health over the long term! I researched this some more and found that there were three viable methods for obtaining an absolute measurement of body fat — a caliper test (which required a tool to measure folds of fat and the skill to use that tool to yield accurate results ), a hydrostatic tank test (which was not readily available ) or a DEXA test (which was inconvenient, expensive and not safe if done frequently).
I remained frustrated with the limitations in accurately tracking my fitness and health until I heard about a revolutionary concept — a 3D body scanner embedded with sensors that capture your 3D body model as a turntable/scale rotates your body. This device was being developed by Farhad Farahbakhshian and his team at Naked Labs. Scans on their alpha prototype took 30 seconds to complete, and uncannily and immediately identified aspects of my health tracking right down to the fact that one of my legs was shorter than the other and that the right side of my body was noticeably stronger than my left side (from years of playing tennis). Most importantly, I finally had a way to track my body over time and calculate body fat to the same accuracy as a hydrostatic test. I decided to make myself a human guinea pig. I added weight training to my exercise regimen, reduced carbohydrates and increased protein in my diet, and reduced snacking after 7:30 pm to near zero. Although my weight showed no significant change, there was a significant reduction in body fat. And this time, it showed in the 3D scans.
What I learned from this four-year journey towards better health was that a) weight only loosely correlates to health, b) the body fat number reported by the inductance measurement on a weighing scale is pretty inaccurate and c) the best proxy for your health is the shape of your body.
I’ve come a long way from the 2011 health scare, but I’m acutely aware that with a family history of heart disease, I’ll always be battling my genetics. With the Naked Labs’ scans I’m finally equipped with the knowledge and feedback that have helped me realize what exercise and diet regimens work best for me. I can’t wait to get my very own 3D fitness scanner so I can track the changes real time.
So what’s next? I hope to run a faster mile, be more agile on the tennis court, lift more weights and hike up that hill in less time… and of course, maybe lose another inch around my waist. By the time these real-time scans come out, I’m pretty sure it will be the first time that’s the easiest goal of the bunch.
Acknowledgements: Adeeti Ullal for graphs and really useful edits, Farhad Farahbakhshian for scans and images