Body Volume Index - A Valuable Obesity Tool

Posted: 9th September 2011

15 years ago, as a Systems Engineering Undergraduate at BAE Systems, I spent the summer at Warton in Lancashire working with the Cockpit Group on Eurofighter Typhoon. This might sound like leading-edge stuff (and some of it was) but I spent the majority of my time in possibly BAE's least high tech laboratory. I was conducting studies that related to the body shapes and sizes of aircrew because, as you can imagine, they have a significant impact on the cockpit design of a fast jet.

My laboratory was a corner of an old changing room which had a level wooden seat and a great big chart on both walls which looked like massive graph paper. One at a time we would invite a subject to sit and stand and reach in a variety of ways so we could mark and measure them with pens and tape measures. It gave us a good overall idea of key dimensions we needed to work with and it was my first introduction to working with the many physical varieties that exist across humans.

Over the last 5 years I've worked mostly in the field of obesity, developing our Community Fit Club programme and resources and co-writing Department of Health guidance on childhood obesity and during this time I have developed a love-hate relationship with BMI. Body Mass Index is the most widely used measure of obesity here in the UK and it is very useful in highlighting population change, which is it, at an alarming rate.

However, the behaviour change which will combat obesity must be done at an individual level, and here BMI is moderately useless. It's a crude calculation using two simple dimensions, height and weight. Height, is assumed not to change - but it does by more than half an inch depending on the time of day. Weight is easy to measure in an instant but tells you nothing of what is going on inside the body.

There are a number of techniques for getting a better idea of body composition, such as body fat scales, waist circumference, waist to hip ratio, caliper measurements and even submerging subjects into water tanks. They all have a compromise somewhere, from instrusiveness, time taken to the accuracy of the readings.

For about the last 10 years, a new technology has been emerging that looks set to change the way we take body measurements in the future and it would certainly have been handy to have at BAE Systems all those years ago. New body scanners which take 3D measurements of human subjects have been developed and are being used to determine body shapes of people of all ages.

So far it has been used to help clothing manufacturers make clothes in size rolls that fit us better. It is also enabling organisations to better understand the physical size and development of children and young people for given ages. The data from these devices will contribute to better design of the human environment for transport, offices, furniture and equipment. In the future it is likely to be used to better determine levels of obesity, especially childhood obesity.

To find out more, check out Shape GB at


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