Find out 5 reasons to get a DEXA Scan, including how it can help you target your muscle training and track your progress. And is it a more accurate measure of health than BMI?
Disclosure: I received a complimentary DEXA Scan in exchange for this review. I was not compensated for my time. All opinions are my own.
I recently had the opportunity to receive a DEXA Scan, and I jumped at the chance. I’ve never had any body fat testing performed in the past, and I thought this would be an interesting opportunity to assess my overall body composition. If you’re like, “WTF is a DEXA scan?”, I’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about this test.
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What is a DEXA Scan?
DEXA stands for dual-energy absorptiometry (DEXA). It’s a quick and painless X-ray procedure that measures your body fat percentage and bone mass. DEXA is backed with hundreds of scientific studies, and many elite athletes use it to measure their overall body composition.
During a DEXA scan, you lay flat on a table and remain fully-clothed. Unlike an MRI, you are not enclosed in a tube, so you don’t get the claustrophobic feeling. The scan takes about seven minutes, and you get an overall reading minutes later. The DEXA scan usually costs around $150.
DEXA Scan Results
As a Dietitian, I’m familiar with BMI (body mass index) as a measurement of weight, but there are some downsides to using this tool (which I’ll discuss later). That said, I wasn’t all the familiar with the standards for body fat percentage, but some sources say the healthful ranges of body fat are 12% to 24% for males and 25% to 31% for females. I asked the MD who did the scan about this and he said that there is no real “standard range” because the research on body fat testing uses a variety of types of tools, some of which are not entirely accurate.
Before receiving my results, the doctor told me that my body fat percentage would probably be much higher than I imagined. And he was correct! Here are my results:
|Body Part||% Body Fat|
|Total||33.1% (includes head, which is low in body fat %)|
My first thought was, “Wow, where is all my muscle?”. The doctor explained to me that other machines would probably predict a much lower body fat percentage for me.
We then performed the body fat percentage test again using a BIA (Bioelectrical impedance analysis) machine, in which your total body fat percentage is measured by a handheld grip. Those results gave me a 24% body fat reading. Herein lies the difficulty in determining standard body fat percentage numbers! We decided not to measure my bone mass, since there was no indication that I would’ve lost any bone with my age and weight status.
From these results, I learned a few things and decided to make some changes to my fitness routine. Here’s what I learned and reasons why I think it would benefit everyone to get a DEXA scan.
1. It helps you target your training.
What I really gathered from my DEXA scan was that I’m weak in my arms. Being a runner, I know that I focus on my lower body and often neglect my upper body. I was surprised to learn that my trunk area was really fit, considering I thought I hold most of my fat in my stomach. Since getting a DEXA scan, I’ve started incorporating more upper body weight training into my fitness routine.
2. You can track progress year over year.
Although the body fat percentages are hard to quantify, I like having these numbers so I can track my progress from year to year. I’m not trying to lose weight, but I’m always happy to add more muscle to my body. I like the fact that I can get another DEXA scan next year and see if I’ve gained any muscle.
3. Muscle mass is related to overall health.
Believe it or not, people over the age of 40 can lose up to 8% of their muscle mass each decade. You may think of muscle mass as only being related to fitness and physical activity, but having strong muscles is tied to overall health. Not only are muscles important for everyday activities, like getting up from a chair or bending to pick things up, but they are also important for energy levels, organ function, skin health, immunity and metabolism. In other words, maintaining muscle mass as you age is necessary for a happy and healthy life.
4. It’s a more accurate health measurement than BMI.
BMI is used as a research and clinical tool to classify people into weight categories, but it has its limitations. BMI doesn’t take into account people with different body compositions or fat to muscle ratio, like cancer survivors or athletes. For instance, the BMI of a football player may say they are “overweight”, but they may have much more muscle than fat. While percentage of body fat is not completely standardized, it does help determine if the BMI is getting an accurate read on your health status.
5. You can assess bone status
Although we didn’t do this in my scan, the DEXA technology is the best tool for assessing bone mass. Women should ask their doctors if and when they need to check your bone status. This could be the first step to warding off osteoporosis.
A word of caution
If you’re the type of person to get hung up on numbers, a DEXA scan might not be for you. You may find yourself obsessing over the body fat % numbers, and that’s not going to be healthy for your mental state. Think about whether or not knowing these numbers will be a positive tool for you before having a scan.