Though it may sound like it, the Bod Pod is not an alien abduction tool, an innovative new type of artificial intelligence, or the latest species of superfood bean. It’s not some type of high tech armor being developed by our military and it definitely isn’t related to a certain sushi place on Sansom. Actually, despite its somewhat silly, fantastical name, the Bod Pod is pretty simple and pretty serious; it's a body composition tracking system that almost all Penn athletes are required to use, multiple times throughout the year.
“You sit in this pod–like machine for like 30 seconds or 60 seconds or something like that and all this air swishes around… then it tells you what percentage you are fat and what percentage you are everything else,” says Chelsea Duggan (W ‘20) of the women’s field hockey team. This season, the entire team underwent the process during preseason, and they plan to do another session once the season ends. Chelsea says they’ll probably even do a third at the end of the spring.
“It takes a little while for all the data to come out, but basically the big pieces they give you is your weight [and] your body fat percentage, and then from your body fat percentage what percentage of your body is muscle,” echoes David Hua (W ‘20), a member of the men’s swim team. “Before you do it you can’t eat or drink for two hours in order to get the most accurate measurements, and then once you’re there, they make you put on a little cap and you get in compression shorts just to make sure there’s no added weight to your body,” he explains. “It opens a door like [something] straight out of a movie, kind of like a teleporting machine.”
Although, unfortunately, it can’t actually teleport you, the athletes say it can prove useful as a training tool.
“Last year a ton of us got tested right after Fling, and we’d been out of season for two months, and it was a wakeup call to see, like, how fat we were and how out of shape we were,” says David. He sees the process as an important part of staying modern in terms of sports training. “You can train as much as you want on the field, in the pool, but making sure you’re taking care of your body with what you eat and how you’re taking care of it outside of your training is I think becoming more and more important in athletics as the years go by.”
For a NARP (ed note: Non-Athletic Regular Person) to gain access to Bod Pod, it costs upwards of $350 per session. For a Penn athlete, there is no monetary cost, though some feel like they still pay a price.
“Typically people dread going to Bod Pod… the week before like leading up to it people get really stressed about it,” Chelsea says. While Chelsea notes that not everyone feels that way, she maintains that the general feeling is negative. “I don’t think that anyone really walks out like ‘Can’t wait to Bod Pod!’ or ‘So happy with my results!’... generally no one really likes thinking about their body image in that way, just broken down into numbers like that.”
David admits to some minor offenses surrounding the Bod Pod too. “On the men’s team we’re always talking trash to one another in the pool, outside of the pool at weights, just with all aspects of life, so definitely we talk trash to each other about Bod Pod. We try to get the lowest body fat like highest muscle mass, but that’s just like, I think that’s the guy mentality.” While he feels that the banter is all in good fun, the Bod Pod may have heavier implications for many student athletes.
This is the potentially darker side of the Bod Pod: for something that is allegedly used to assess the physical health of our athletes, it doesn’t quite take into account the mental side of their health.
“I’m fine with doing it and I think it’s interesting to see the difference,” Chelsea explains, “but seeing how it affects other girls on my team makes me feel sad. [It] stresses me out for them because they get so worked up about it and wanna go to the sauna every night of the week before.” Athletes, who especially should know that such short–term sauna strategies are futile, still do whatever they can that week in the hopes that their numbers might be the slightest bit different. The Bod Pod gets in people’s heads.
“I know some people just have body image issues,” David, though more optimistic about the practice, explains over a coffee in Capogiro, “centering around a single number could be detrimental to some people’s mental health, if they’re… crazy about how they’re perceived body–wise.”
David’s comment brings up an essential point: if the Bod Pod affects you and your body image negatively, then perhaps the machine itself isn’t the problem. For some, the Bod Pod contributes to a larger struggle with body image, one that our culture reinforces and one with which almost all people grapple.
“It’s weird to see the word 'fat' and then a number or percentage, because I think fat is associated with so much more than just your physical make up,” Chelsea says, “It’s kind of stunning when you look at the words.” The results often have the opposite of the intended effect on people’s motivation. Chelsea describes it as sometimes feeling “demeaning.”
On the other hand, Bod Pod helps people to view and attempt nutrition and weight loss in a healthier way than they might normally try on their own. It reestablishes the focus onto losing fat and gaining muscle, instead of just losing weight to lose weight. “I think in that sense it’s a good thing for body image because you know that you’re doing it in a healthy manner,” admits Chelsea.
“It just pushes us to eat right, be healthy. I know last year before we did Bod Pod testing, a few of us in the spring group were really focused on putting on a lot of muscle and putting on a lot of weight, and we weren’t doing it in the most effective way,” David explains, “We would eat Domino's pizzas like every other day at like midnight and it just wasn’t conducive to performance or good nutrition.” After a session in the Bod Pod, many of the swimmers completely changed their habits. “We’re eating a lot healthier now. We all kinda stopped eating pizza,” David laughs, “I know myself when I go to Allegro's I never get pizza anymore, I just get the grilled chicken platter with broccoli and spinach.” This seems reasonable, healthy: simply athletic.
In the athlete’s world, the body is so obviously central; it's the primary tool people use to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, this can either breed a strong focus on healthy living or cross the very thin line into something much more consuming and complex. It seems like the Bod Pod can add to both sides of this constant athlete’s struggle. Furthermore, the idea of body image is irrefutably and overwhelmingly larger than just the sports world. Countless variables contribute to how an experience like the Bod Pod might affect an individual, student athlete or not.
Perhaps the Bod Pod’s impact differs depending on which sport and gender team you ask. “I think it can be a useful tool if you are looking to lose or gain weight and to see if you’re doing it in a healthy manner, but I don’t think it’s really necessary,” Chelsea concludes.
David sums the whole thing up hopefully: “If you just think of it as a training tool I think it’s very beneficial… It kinda depends on how you treat your results, and what you wanna do with them.”