Body Composition: What is it and why is it so important?

Getting a sense of the fitness of our bodies used to be simple. It was always a function of a simple calculus of our height, weight, and age group. As long as we did not fall into the category of being overweight, we could feel reasonably sure we were healthy. Now, the process is more complex. Body composition offers a more accurate picture of how healthy and fit we really are. 

Body composition can take into consideration more things than the old standards of measure. When we start to think about body composition, we are able to examine features like muscle mass and bone density. By bringing together more variables for determining fitness, we get a better picture of how fit we are. 

Body composition is just a more accurate way of assessing our overall fitness and health. The reason body composition has become so important is that we now understand that there is more to fitness than just body weight. In fact, fitness is more complex than something like body mass index. 

What is body composition? Why is body composition important? And how do you measure body composition? This guide will give the basic information you need to understand body composition and why it is important.  

What is Body Composition?

Body composition refers to everything in your body, including all the various organ structures that determine your weight. This includes fat mass and fat-free mass. 

Your weight does reveal as much as you might think. You can find out if you are overweight or even underweight, but in terms of your overall fitness and the features of your body that determine your health fitness, the weight alone is not that revealing. 

Fat mass is the total mass of all the fat tissue in your body. Fat-free mass refers to everything else, such as bones and muscles. Fat-free mass also includes organs and fluids. If there is a change in all of these components at once, you will likely see weight loss. However, if you lose fat mass while gaining muscle mass, you may stay the same weight or even show a weight gain. 

When you exercise, you simultaneously shed fat by metabolizing them, and you build muscle by working the muscles. Thus, you may not see weight loss on the scale, but you may actually be getting healthier and leaner. This is why body composition can be such an important metric in determining your overall health and fitness.  

Why is Body Composition important?

Body composition offers a more accurate and thorough assessment of your health and fitness than other types of measurements. Since body composition assesses all the features of what makes up the mass of your body, you can get a clear picture of how healthy you are and the kinds of things you should do to achieve better health. 

Since your weight only allows us to see our overall mass, there is no way to determine the steps we should take to achieve our fitness goals. What is more, weight cannot offer a picture of the kinds of dietary changes we might need to make. 

Exercise is always a good idea. But if we are trying to reach a specific goal with exercise, we cannot measure our progress with weight alone. We may not lose weight, for example, if we are building muscle mass while shedding fat. On the other hand, we may be led into a false sense of progress if our weight appears healthy, but our muscle system and skeletal system are not getting the attention they need. 

Body composition can tell you exactly what your body is made of and how to eat and exercise in ways that provide the most benefit. 

What is a Healthy Body Composition?

Because body composition consists of a set of data rather than a range of percentages, it is not possible to determine an exact healthy body composition. Everyone will be different, and your body composition consists of a variety of measurements. 

Healthy body fat percentages vary between men and women, and they vary according to age. Low skeletal muscle mass and high body fat percentage do put people at risk of things like cardiovascular disease. 

How to Measure Body Composition

You can determine body composition using several methods. Hydrostatic weighing, skinfold assessment, and bioelectrical impedance. The method that is most accurate and practical is skinfold measurements. 

Skinfold measurements use calipers to gauge the thickness of areas where fat tends to accumulate, such as the abdomen, hip, arm, back, and thigh. Calipers are used to measure the thickness of a fold using millimeters. 

The skinfold measurement is put into a formula that can calculate body fat percentage in relation to lean mass. The skinfold technique is accurate within a margin of about 3 percent. This is the preferred method for measuring body composition since it does not require advanced clinical interventions. 

How to Improve Body Composition

Healthy body composition means having less body fat in comparison to lean muscle and other fat-free mass. Too much body fat means you are at risk of developing a vast array of serious medical conditions. There are two ways to improve body composition. 


First, take stock of how many calories you consume in a day. Although calories are not the only consideration, they are one of the most important. In simple terms, the more calories you consume, the more you gain weight. When you reduce the number of calories you consume, you will likely lose weight. 

Equally important are the kinds of foods you eat. Reduce your intake of junk foods. Things like processed foods, pizza, ice cream, chips, and soda pop provide little to no nutrition and are loaded with calories and unhealthy fat. These foods are also low in protein and fiber. 

It is extremely helpful to determine how many of your daily calories come from foods that contain protein and fiber. Protein is important, and the more active you are the more protein you will need. 

Protein is also more satisfying than fat and carbs, and eating enough protein will help you burn calories. 

Fiber is also necessary, and it helps you stay full longer. You get more satisfaction from meals that contain healthy amounts of fiber. You can increase your fiber intake by including in your meals things like beans and other legumes, fruits and vegetables, and nuts. 

Physical activity and exercise

The best way to improve your body composition is through physical activity and exercise. By exercising and staying active you burn calories, and you build lean muscle mass. This means your body composition will tend toward more muscle and healthy bones than fat. 

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 2-4 hours of exercise per week can contribute to significant weight loss. Experts recommend you exercise five days a week for about 30-50 minutes. This builds lean muscle mass and burns calories and fat and will contribute to an overall healthy and fit body composition. 

Body Composition Examples

As we noted above, body composition will vary according to your individual physical makeup. There is no single standard for what constitutes a good body composition. 

For women aged 20-39, body fat between 21 percent and 32 percent is considered healthy. For men, body fat composition should be between 8 and 19 percent. Women over 40 should see a body fat composition between 23 and 33 percent, and men should have a body fat composition of between 11 percent and 21 percent. 

Other things to consider are your physical activity levels and special needs. Older people need to take care that their skeletal system is in good health as things like osteoporosis become factors.  

Body Composition Exercises

To optimize your body composition, the best thing you can do is eat right and exercise. Some great exercises to build body composition include:


These are intense moves that burn a lot of calories. Burpees are great for your core, shoulders, and thighs. 


Begin in the plank position with your toes and palms on the ground. Hold your body horizontally. 

Bring your knees to your chest and tuck them, then place your feet on either side of your hands. 

Bring yourself to the upright position and jump up driving your weight through your heels. 

This is one complete repetition. The idea is to make these moves smoothly and rhythmically in a continuous flow. 

Do three sets of 10 repetitions. 


These are the traditional pushups from common fitness training regimens. Pushups are great for strengthening your shoulders and can help with your core. 


Begin in the resting position laying flat on your stomach. 

Push yourself off the ground into a plank position, holding your body up with your hands and toes. 

Lower yourself back down and let your chest touch the ground. 

Push your weight back up and hold your body in the plank position. 

Repeat 5 sets of 15 repetitions. 

Weighted squat jump

For this exercise, you will need a light handheld weight. You can also use a yoga mat to make this more comfortable. 

Weighted squat jumps can help sculpt your bottom half. You will feel these in your quads and glutes. 


Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and toes pointed forward. Hold the weight with both hands in front of you. 

Bend your legs and drop your bottom down to about knee height. Your legs should form roughly a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement. 

Drive your weight through your heels and push yourself back to the upright position. This should squeeze your glutes on the way up. Maintain posture by holding your chest out and shoulders back, and do not let your torso become parallel with the ground. 

Keep a firm grip on your weight throughout all the movements. You may also feel this exercise in your shoulders and biceps.  

Do 5 sets of 25 repetitions. You can adjust this number according to your ability and work up over time. 

There is a variation of this exercise that involves holding your legs further apart and pointing your toes outward. This will help work your inner thighs. 

There are many exercises for building your body composition. These are just three easy examples. The main thing to think about is to strike a balance between physical activity that burns calories and also builds muscle. You do not need to be a weightlifter, but body mass improves with an increase in lean muscle and a decrease in body fat. 

Wrapping things up

For a long time, the main concern for doctors and individuals alike was weight. Our weight was the main factor when it came to measuring fitness and health. Body mass index added to this view of fitness and health by introducing other variables into how we understand our weight in relation to our bodies. 

Body composition adds even more details to the overall picture of fitness and health. By taking into account our individual body structure, we can get an individualized assessment of our physical fitness and health. Some people naturally carry more fat mass than others. And some people tend to be extremely thin and lean. Body composition allows you to gauge your fitness based on your body and how it is structured. 

Since body weight is made up of fat, muscle, bone, organs, and water, it is difficult if not impossible to make determinations of health and fitness from weight alone. As we noted, it is possible, and even likely, that exercising regularly will burn fat and build muscle while not revealing a change in body weight. This is because muscle begins to take on more of a percentage in your overall body composition. 

By measuring and understanding body composition, you can make sound decisions about things like diet and exercise that help you get healthy and stay healthy. Body composition helps you to know your own body in a more healthy and sound way than other ways of measuring fitness and health.  


Learn ways to improve your body composition, develop your "inner game", and optimize your overall health and well-being.