Montana State University

New equipment in MSU lab measures body composition, helps fight chronic diseases

January 12, 2012 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


Mary Miles, a health and human performance professor at Montana State University, demonstrates the calibration procedure for the Bod Pod in a laboratory on the MSU campus in Bozeman. The Bod Pod measures a subject's body composition while they sit in the unit. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A piece of equipment that looks more suited to outer space than a laboratory is enabling Montana State University researchers to gather data that may help people fight chronic diseases.

The Bod Pod -- a life-sized sealed chamber that resembles a space pod or giant egg -- is used to measure people's body composition. This information can be used to estimate resting metabolic rate, or the rate at which a person's body burns calories without exertion.

Body composition testing identifies the percentages of fat mass and lean mass (such as muscles) that each person has. The data is far more accurate than simply weighing a person and comparing that person to recommended weight norms based on age and gender.

"These measurements are much more personalized," said Mary Miles, a health and human development professor who proposed adding the equipment to MSU's Nutrition Research Laboratory. "Knowing these percentages can help individuals as they develop personalized diet and exercise plans. Then, the equipment can help them monitor their progress as they work toward their goals.

"The equipment will have a variety of uses here at MSU," added Miles, who will use it in her classes and research. And, for a fee, Miles will perform scans for people who request them. Since it's the only Bod Pod in the state of Montana, the service means that individuals who otherwise wouldn't have access to the technology now have the opportunity to have measurements taken with it.

Miles' research focuses on disease prevention and chronic diseases, particularly diabetes and heart disease. Because excess body fat has been found to increase the risk of those diseases -- among other ailments -- measuring the percentages of lean and fat mass will provide important information.

"It helps us to understand how fat tissue influences the development of diseases," Miles said. "For example, we're finding that having more fat tissue influences the level of inflammation that occurs when exercise and carbohydrate intake are combined."

Inflammatory proteins in the blood affect tissues throughout the body and promote disease processes such as insulin resistance or coronary artery disease, Miles said.

"We have found that high carbohydrate intake after exercise in overweight individuals increases the inflammation that occurs a day after the type of exercise that results in muscle soreness," she said. "This particular inflammation comes from muscle and fat tissue, but the inflammation proteins in the blood can affect all tissues of the body, such as the blood vessels.

"There's a lot of interaction with how people's diet and lifestyle choices affect body composition," Miles added. "They influence it directly."

To take measurements with the Bod Pod, people are asked to refrain from exercising the day of the test and from eating or drinking two hours before it. For accuracy, those being tested should wear form-fitting clothes, such as yoga gear or a swimsuit.

Before the test, Miles or a student researcher records a few pieces of information, such as the person's age, height and weight, and calibrates the machine. Then, the participant simply sits inside the pod, breathing normally and remaining still, while the measurements are calculated through a series of air pressure changes. Those air pressure changes will likely be noticeable but shouldn't be uncomfortable, Miles said. And, if needed, the participant can stop the test early and exit the pod, but a large window generally reduces any feelings of claustrophobia or anxiety. All told, the test itself takes about one minute to complete.

The same test is repeated a second time with each participant. If the results are close enough to indicate the measurements were accurately taken, the test is finished. If the results are outside the margin, the test may be done a third time. Once testing is complete, the equipment sends the readings to a computer, which interprets the data and produces a printout explaining the results.

Miles noted that the same measurements can be obtained by hydrostatic weighing, or weighing underwater. While equally accurate, that method may not be as practical or as comfortable.

"The Bod Pod really gives us an accurate tool that is safer and easier for many people," Miles said. "It's just much more comfortable for people to sit in this than get in a swimsuit, climb underwater, be submerged, blow out the air in their lungs and hold very still on a scale."

Miles has been impressed with the equipment's performance so far, and she envisions a number of uses for the Bod Pod.

Since it arrived and was installed in August, MSU students in a nutrition assessment course have used the equipment to take measurements on their classmates. Doing so helped them learn about gathering data, and it also gave the students potentially beneficial information about their own health.

"The measurements we've done so far have been very impressive," Miles said. "The Bod Pod has been able to detect small changes. It's really been spot on."

Miles also plans to integrate the equipment into two research projects she is planning for next year. One of those projects is in early planning stages; the second will focus on inflammation as a risk factor for disease and examine the role of fat tissues as a source of inflammation.

Miles first learned about the Bod Pod and its technology at a conference she attended years ago. Even though the technology has been around for more than a decade, it wasn't until recently that she started looking into obtaining one for MSU's Nutrition Research Laboratory.

Adding the equipment to the Nutrition Research Lab was made possible by financial support from the College of Education, Health and Human Development. Larry Baker, the dean of the college, says the equipment is a good investment.

"Dr. Miles' agenda for teaching and research focuses on human health and well-being from nutrition, metabolism and genetics," Baker said. "Such passion and expertise that is transferred to our students requires strategic investments in pedagogical tools like the Bod Pod."

Miles says the Bod Pod will be an enormous help.

"We're lucky to have this equipment and the capability to make these measurements so accurately," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the benefits that come with this new addition to our lab."

Contact: Mary Miles, (406) 994-6678 or mmiles@montana.edu