Anthropometry is the measurement of the size and proportions of the human body. Anthropometric measurements include those of the whole body, such as weight and stature (standing height). Also, anthropometry assesses specific areas of the body, as with circumference measurements around a body part, like the arm or skull. Furthermore, specific body tissues can be estimated through anthropometry. For example, adipose tissue under the skin (subcutaneous fat) can be measured by collecting skinfold measurements, which consist of skin and fat existing above skeletal muscle. In addition, anthropometric data include various ratios and indices of body dimensions. Such calculated measurements can yield information about the relative size or shapes of the whole body or its parts. Anthropometry has a long history within anthropology, and it has been especially important in the biological and medical areas of the discipline.
Among the many possible anthropometric measurements are stature; weight; circumferences of the head, chest, abdomen, arm, forearm, wrist, buttocks, thigh, calf, and ankle; lengths of body segments such as the thigh and calf; breadths across body parts such as the elbow and hip bones; and skinfolds of various sites that may have subcutaneous fat, such as beneath the shoulder blade, next to the navel, at the top of the hip bone, at the back and front of the upper arm, and at the inner and outer sides of the thigh.
Some of the advantages of anthropometric measurements are that they are relatively easy to collect, can be performed with simple equipment, and are obtainable with minimal disruption to those being measured. Moreover, because the equipment needed for data collection is portable, anthropometric measurements can be obtained in a variety of settings, including laboratories, hospitals, private residences, community structures, and outdoor environments. Furthermore, as anthropometric data collection is relatively inexpensive, it is useful for gathering information from large samples of individuals and/ or collecting data at repeated intervals. One of the drawbacks of anthropometric measurements is that they are less precise than more expensive, invasive techniques. For example, while the anthropometric measurement of circumference at the navel is an indication of abdominal size, a computed tomography (CT) scan of an individual at the navel can show the exact location and quantity of particular kinds of tissues, such as adipose, muscle, organ, connective, and bone.
Particular techniques have been developed to encourage standardization of anthropometric measurements. Such measurement guidelines help ensure that different data collectors are measuring the same aspects of the body in the same way and at the same reference points. In addition, specific equipment and particular features of equipment are recommended to facilitate accurate measurements. For example, the instrument for measuring weight should be a beam scale with movable weights or an electronic digital scale. The preferred equipment for measuring stature is a stadiometer, or a vertical, marked rod with a movable platform that contacts the head. For circumferences, the tape measure used should be narrow, flexible, and nonstretching, so that measurements are not exaggerated. Lengths and breadths of body parts or between reference points on the body require either an anthropometer, which is a marked rod with a movable, perpendicular attachment, or spreading or sliding calipers, which have movable elements along a marked straightedge.
The anthropometric measurements most technically demanding to collect are skinfolds. For accuracy of results, precise suggestions should be followed regarding how and where to lift the fold of tissue. The measurer also needs to know how and where to place the skinfold calipers, a measuring instrument with pressure-sensitive separating jaws that fit over the skinfold, as well as how to manage the exertion of pressure from the calipers to take an accurate reading.
Single anthropometric measurements can be combined into various ratios and indices to represent varied physical characteristics. For example, several indices reflecting aspects of the head have been developed. The cephalic index indicates head breadth as a percentage of head length, while the nasal index shows nasal breadth as a percentage of nasal length. Other indices reflect overall body proportions or shape. The skeletal index indicates sitting height as a percentage of stature, and the intermembral index denotes the length of the arms as a percentage of leg length.
Still other anthropometric indices are used to suggest overall body fatness or distribution of adipose tissue in the body. For example, the body mass index (BMI), which is the ratio of body weight to stature squared, is commonly interpreted as an indicator of total body adiposity. The ratio of waist-to-hip circumferences is frequently used to suggest relative upper-body (also termed android) obesity or lower-body (also termed gynoid) obesity. One indication of trunk fat relative to limb fat is the ratio of abdominal circumference to arm circumference.
Applications of anthropometry in the study of body composition illustrate one of the major uses of anthropometry within anthropology. In population studies, biological anthropologists have used anthropometric measurements and indices to assess adipose tissue distribution and overall adiposity. Anthropometric data can also be used in prediction equations to estimate more complex aspects of body composition, such as body density and percentage of body fat.
Anthropometric data are used in several other ways by biological and medical anthropologists. In studying patterns of disease and mortality, scientists have investigated connections between anthropometric data such as waist-hip ratio and BMI and risk of various infectious and chronic diseases and death. Furthermore, anthropologists have traced patterns in nutritive status of human groups over time through anthropometric data. Measurements of various body parts are valuable in interpretation of human activity habits, such as the use of certain limbs for a customary activity. In addition, anthropometry has been used in investigating population trends in growth, such as the changes in stature that have occurred with migrations between countries varying in affluence. Adaptation to a variety of environmental characteristics, such as the differences in stockiness between hot-adapted and cold-adapted groups, has been examined through anthropometry. Moreover, anthropometric data have important historical and future applications in the design of products such as vehicles, furniture, and clothing for businesses and the government.
- Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man, revised and expanded. New York: Norton.
- Lohman, T. G., Roche, A. F., & Martorell, R. (Eds.). (1988). Anthropometric standardization reference manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- WHO Expert Committee on Physical Status. (1995). Physical status: The use and interpretation of anthropometry. Geneva: World Health Organization.