What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage? (& How to Measure It)
You want to be a lean, mean, fitness machine…But what does “lean” mean?
Learn about healthy body fat percentage as well as how to know your own fat percentage.
“I want to lose weight! I’m ready to be skinny!”
We’ve all said it (or, at the very least, thought it) as we’ve stared in despair at the bathroom scale or a BMI calculator. But very few people realize that “losing weight” isn’t the same as “being fit.”
In my experience as a personal trainer and gym owner, when someone says, “I want to lose weight,” what they really mean is, “I want to reach a healthy body fat percentage.”
What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
At my gym, Breakthrough Fitness, I prefer body fat percentage to weight as an indicator of my clients’ progress. Simply put, body fat percentage is the percentage of your total body mass that is made of fat.
If you weighed 100 pounds and 25 of those pounds were fat tissue, you would have a body fat percentage of 25%.
There is no single number that can be deemed a healthy body fat percentage for everyone. Your ideal body fat percentage falls within a certain range, and changes throughout your life.
This chart shows the various body fat percentage ranges for men and women at different ages. As you can see, a healthy body fat percentage of a 50-year-old woman is significantly higher than that of a 20-year-old male.
You also may have noticed that the “ideal” range is not the lowest body fat percentage a person can attain. Our bodies need fat to live. And finding a truly healthy body fat percentage means avoiding too little fat as well as too much of it.
But why is that? What makes fat so important?
What Is Fat?
Nowadays, most humans are programmed to think “Fat = BAD!” But your body actually needs a certain level of fat to live.
Your body contains two types of fat: essential fat and stored fat.
Essential fat is the amount of fat your body needs simply to function properly. It’s present in the organs, bone marrow and nerve tissues. Ideally, 3-5% of a man’s body weight should come from essential fat. For women, this number is closer to 10-14%. It’s believed women have higher essential body fat because of childbearing and hormone function.
Stored fat, on the other hand, is the accumulation of excess energy (i.e. all those extra carbs and fats you ate). This type of fat can be further divided into two categories: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat lies just under the skin, while visceral fat is found in the abdomen and around major organs.
Having too much subcutaneous fat isn’t healthy, but visceral fat is much worse, as it raises your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer.
Everything that is not fat is considered lean mass. This includes:
You can’t change the size or amount of your bones, blood, organs, or cartilage. So in fitness, whenever we talk about “body composition,” we’re talking specifically of the things you can change: namely, muscle mass and fat.
Why Does Body Fat Percentage Matter?
Why bother calculating your healthy body fat percentage when you can simply use the numbers like your body weight or BMI (body mass index) to see whether you are healthy?
It all comes down to the differences between muscle and fat.
If you were to compare one pound of fat tissue vs. one pound of lean muscle mass, you’d quickly notice that—although they may weigh the same—the two look very different.
Fat takes up a lot of space; it is soft and gelatinous. Muscle, on the other hand, is lean, dense tissue, composed of long, thin bands, like a bundle of pencils. Muscle mass doesn’t take up nearly as much space as fat.
This is why you can have two individuals with similar weights standing side-by-side that may look completely different—200 lbs. of muscle looks a lot different than 200 lbs. of fat!
Not only is muscle lean, it is also very metabolic (it needs a constant supply of energy). The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you burn. (This is why your personal trainer focuses more on building muscle than “losing weight”!)
Lose Fat, Not Just “Weight”
The bathroom scale can tell you whether you lost weight, but it can’t tell you whether you lost fat.
When you lose weight, that weight could be coming from a number of different sources: fat, muscle tissue, or even water. Some of my clients have lost inches, dropped clothing sizes, and gotten visibly dramatic results in their before/after photos…all with minimal change to the numbers on the scale.
No one wants to lose muscle mass (or be dehydrated). After all, building lean muscle will raise your metabolism, so that you burn more fat, even while at rest. So, if the number on the scale is dropping, you need to make sure you’re losing fat.
And the best way to do that is with a body fat test.
How to Know Your Fat Percentage
There are multiple ways to calculate your body fat, but I still prefer the skin fold method. In my experience, an $80 skin caliper can track progress just as well as Dual X-Ray Absorptiometry machines and hydrostatic weighing (without the huge price tag or footprint). In the past, you may have gotten a bioelectrical impedance analysis, but these can easily be thrown off by your hydration levels.
Ultimately, the skin fold method is the winner.
It works by using a set of calipers to pinch subcutaneous fat at various positions on the body. As you begin to reach a healthier body fat percentage, we will notice a difference in how much fat can be pinched.
This is a much more accurate way of determining your fat percentage than the number on the scale.
Of course, you can also track your progress by how you look and feel. As you lose fat, you will notice that you look slimmer in pictures or in the mirror. Your clothes will fit differently (you may even need to purchase a new wardrobe). You will feel stronger and have more energy.
Which would you believe more: a bathroom scale or the pants you haven’t been able to fit in since high school?
When your goal is fat loss, it’s good to track as many things as possible. The scale is the most popular method, but isn’t the best. At Breakthrough Fitness, I prefer to use before/after photos, clothes, circumference measurements, and body fat percentage.
Knowing your current and your healthy body fat percentage gives you a starting point and a finish line to work towards. It’s also a much better way to track your progress than weighing yourself on a bathroom scale.
If you are curious about your body fat percentage and live in the Oviedo, FL area, come in to Breakthrough Fitness for a FREE, no obligation body fat test.
In the meantime, give us a call at 407-542-5910 to become a member.
We can’t wait to meet you!