Want to Feel Terrible About Yourself? Get a DEXA Scan

I have a writer’s body: soft, pale, and devoid of muscle tone. I’ve never done a proper pushup in my entire life. Hell, I couldn’t even use the monkey bars when I was a kid. (Did I consistently fail the Presidential Physical Fitness Test? What do you think, buddy.)

In spite of the fact that, when unclothed, my body resembles a sack of tapioca pudding held upright by bones, I am not overweight— or, more accurately, I can pass as a slim person. While “slim” decidedly does not mean “healthy,” in the past I never had to confront the awful truth of how much fat I have compared to muscle, or how much bone is in my, uh, bones. I didn’t have to know what this passable flesh sack was made of. Finding out was prohibitively, mercifully expensive. Now, thanks to DEXA scans, all it takes to get to the bottom of one’s bottom is $45 — no physician and no insurance required.

DEXA stands for Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry. Its original purpose is to measure bone density, but it’s also able to measure one’s entire bodily composition with harrowing accuracy. DEXA scans are the most precise test of such things. Hydrostatic weighing, the use of calipers, and the Bod Pod — which is, I assure you, a real thing — pale in comparison.

“In the past I never had to confront the awful truth of how much fat I have compared to muscle. Finding out was prohibitively, mercifully expensive.”

This accuracy, combined with its low cost, has made it popular among fitness freaks and people looking to document their road to weight loss. I am neither, but I am curious. So I got one. And I got an RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate) test, which measures how many calories your body burns when in repose, just for good measure. The total price for both? A reasonable $120.

I didn’t even have to wait in a doctor’s office; rather, I got these tests in a nondescript loft that had been divided into cubicles. Upon arrival, I filled out an intake form wherein I agreed that the establishment administering my tests would “not provide medical advice and any diagnosis, treatment, operation or prescription for any illness or ailment.”

They, of course, don’t need to provide any diagnoses; clients are more than capable of taking care of that themselves. DEXA scans are the perfect complement to America’s fascination with self-diagnosis. And the popularity of WebMD, fear-mongering bloggers like The Food Babe, and snake oil salesmen like Dr. Oz prove that people are more than willing to take medical advice from basically anyone. As healthcare costs rise, we can only assume this trend will continue.

“DEXA scans are the perfect complement to America’s fascination with self-diagnosis.”

BodySpec, the company that provided my scan, informed me their place of business also offers nutritional coaching, and suggested I come back for another scan to “chart my progress” once I started my “exercise regimen.” Which, to be completely honest, the results of my initial DEXA test made me, the least active person in Los Angeles, want to start. Because, you see, the DEXA test shamed me. The DEXA test broke me. The DEXA test allowed me to diagnose myself as a 115-pound obese woman.

I am 115 pounds, sure, but 43.5 pounds of it — 37.5% of my body — is pure fat. This puts me, according to the distressingly fit middle-aged woman who explained my results, in the 80th percentile for women my age. Which means 80% of all women have less body fat than me. Are you, dear reader, a woman? If so, there is an 80% chance you have less body fat than me. Congratulations.

On the bright side, I am in the 60th percentile for women over 60, which means my body fat percentage is slightly better than most people on the precipice of death. Hurrah! The next fun fact she trotted out was that my Relative Skeletal Muscle Index (RSMI), a measurement of the amount of muscle in my arms and legs, is woefully below average. Apparently, my arms are 40.9% fat. Good to know, I thought, as she explained this to me. And, by “good,” I mean “terrifying.”

“The DEXA test allowed me to diagnose myself as a 115-pound obese woman.”

If you’re wondering what the fancy word for abdominal fat is, it’s “android.” According to my report, it’s “associated with visceral (unhealthy) fat,” and should be less than one’s total body fat. In my case, naturally, it is not. My level of gynoid fat, which is “concentrated in [my] hips, upper thighs, and buttocks,” is also pretty high. This, like my RSMI score, came as no surprise — I’ve been complimented more times on the size and shape of my derrière than, say, my brain or personality. Note that this is not a brag, but a sad, solemn statement of fact.

My report, thank God, wasn’t all bad news. For what it’s worth, my fat mass ratios are decent; my fat is distributed “optimally.” I may be fatter than I thought I was, sure, but at least I carry it well. And my Bone Density Z-Score says I have greater bone density than, like, 80% of the population! Looks like there won’t be any Boniva in my future. (Sadly, this is one more thing Sally Fields and I don’t have in common.)

The results of my RMR test were less soul shattering than my overall DEXA results; the process of gathering them, however, was wholly uncomfortable. While a DEXA scan merely involves laying on a table for less than five minutes, measuring the metabolic rate of a person at rest apparently requires plugging their nose, shoving a plastic tube in their mouth, and telling them not to move for a full 13 minutes. I was admonished mid-test for not breathing naturally enough with a choke-inducing, jaw-exhausting tube in my mouth, so I cannot tell you if my results are truly accurate. But I can tell you they were positive: My metabolism is ever so slightly faster than normal. So who cares if they’re accurate? It’s been a rough day, OK?

“Just because it’s easier and cheaper than ever to know what’s going on inside of us, it doesn’t mean we’re actually going to do anything to change it.”

The main purpose of an RMR test is to learn how many calories one has to consume in order to lose or maintain weight, but I was more interested in learning how many I needed to consume in order to, y’know, not die while remaining as inactive as humanly possible. It turns out the answer is 1,368 calories. By virtue of just being alive, I burn 1,368 calories each day. Which is what I do most days: merely stay alive.

According to my results, 408 is the “number of calories [I] burn performing [my] daily activities… working, playing, eating, etc.” But there is no section on the report that tells me how many calories I burn while watching The People’s Court, which is typically the most taxing thing I do. The results of my RMR test, therefore, mean little to me. As do the results of my DEXA scan, the more I think about it.

Sure, learning I was more fat than person was fairly unsettling. Sure, it made me feel like I should do something to TAKE CONTROL OF MY HEALTH. But, in my heart of hearts, I know I won’t do a damn thing about it. After all, just because it’s easier and cheaper than ever to know what’s going on inside of us, it doesn’t mean we’re actually going to do anything to change it. That, as you know, would require effort, and way more than $120.

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