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How to measure or Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage

We tend to view body fat of any kind in a negative light. We bristle at the thought of our body fat and work hard to get rid of it. But body fat serves important physiological functions. The real issue is our body fat percentage, the amount of our overall body mass index that is comprised of body fat. We need to maintain a healthy level of body fat, and this is why calculating body fat percentage is important for any fitness program. 

While we are accustomed to taking our weight as a prime indicator of our health, this metric can be deceiving. For example, a bodybuilder may have the same weight as a person who is technically obese. The difference between these two people is their body fat percentage. The body builder’s weight is mostly a function of the muscle. The obese person is mostly body fat. The former has a lower body fat percentage. 

Body fat percentage obviously leads us toward some complex science. Without getting involved in a scientific disquisition on the complexities of body fat and BMI (which we will get to below), we can at least come to understand body fat percentage. 

Body fat percentage is a great measure of fitness since it takes into consideration a person’s size rather than using a standard number that applies to everyone. By including weight and height in the calculation you can get a more accurate picture of your health.  

Calculating your body fat percentage gives you a much more accurate picture of your overall physical health. From this, you can create realistic fitness goals. You can manage your workouts toward body fat percentage goal that is conducive to overall health and toward athletic training. 

What is body fat percentage? 

In the simplest of terms, body fat percentage is the mass of body fat divided by your total body mass, multiplied by 100. However, body fat percentage gets complicated when you start to account for essential body fat versus storage body fat.  

It is necessary that we maintain a certain level of essential body fat. This allows the body to sustain vital functions. The level of essential body fat is higher for women than it is for men. This is due to the added stresses of things like childbirth. Body fat is essential to our health and performs some key functions:

  1. As an insulator to conserve heat. 
  2. It provides metabolic fuel for the production of energy. 
  3. Acts as padding to cushion your internal organs.

Both men and women need to maintain a certain amount of essential body fat and we need to distinguish essential body fat when calculating body fat percentage. The normal level of essential body fat is about 3 percent, but you need to take your own physiology into account when actually calculating body fat percentage. 

This is also where body fat percentage becomes complicated. In order to work with the body fat percentage as a starting point for weight management and fitness, we need to factor in things like Body Mass index and essential body fat for your particular size, age, and gender.  

You should also remember that body fat percentage is not a reflection of muscle mass. It is possible to have significant muscle mass and a high body fat percentage. Your overall fitness is dependent on numerous factors. Body fat percentage is just one term in a complex of metrics.  

Examples of body fat percentage

Again, your body fat percentage and the way it will work toward your fitness goals requires some math. The average body fat percentage for a physically fit person as approximately 15 percent. But for the sake of getting a sense of how body fat percentages reflect how you may look, here are some descriptions of examples of body fat percentages. 

Men

  • 18-20 %: You will look fit and trim with visible lean muscle. There will be some muscle definition and visible abs. But you will not necessarily have that cut six-pack and those rippling muscles 
  • 14-17%: Upper abdominal muscles are visible. Bottom abs may not be as pronounced. You will show all-over muscle definition. Things will not be deeply cut and defined. 
  • 9-13 %: You will have six-pack abs. Chest and arms will be well defined. 
  • 5-8 %: This basically looks like a statue from classical antiquity. Not a realistic goal unless this is all you do. You will have the most defined muscles in any room. 

Women

  • 20-21%: You look slim and fit. No real pronounced muscle definition, but definitely swimsuit ready. 
  • 17-18%: Some muscle definition. No six-pack abs, but you will see outlines of muscle through the arms and legs. 
  • 14-15%: Starting to see the overall definition. Abs are visible and taught. Athletic. 
  • 11-12%: Again, like a Greek statue. All-over muscle definition. Six-pack abs. This is the body of a serious athlete. 

These are examples designed to give you a sense of what body fat percentage can look like. Set realistic fitness goals that include considerations for your health as well as how you want to look. 

What should my body fat percentage be?

There is no single number that will give you the ideal for your body. Health, fitness, and even looking good are always a complex of many things. However, there are some general rules that can help you set realistic goals for fitness and health. 

Your BMI takes into account body fat percentage, essential body fat, and many other factors and is therefore not dependent on gender. Body fat percentage does take gender into account because women generally require a higher body fat percentage than men. 

But even the most general ideas of body fat percentages need to be broken down according to different categories. 

  • Essential fat: 10-13%
  • Athletes: 14-20%
  • Fitness 21-24%
  • Acceptable: 25-31%
  • Obese: 32% and higher

These numbers take into account activity levels. Highly active people will often weigh more than others, but they have a high percentage of muscle over body fat. Your healthy body fat percentage will also change as you age.  However, there is a point at which body fat percentage indicates poor health. 

As we can see, over 32% of body fat indicates obesity, and this poses serious health problems. 

How to calculate or Measure my body fat percentage?

The most accurate ways of measuring body fat percentage involve medical tests. Full-body scanners, hydrostatic weighing, and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry are expensive. These methods may not be all that accurate anyway. 

Skinfold calipers can give you a reasonably accurate measure of body fat percentage. You can do this yourself or have a qualified trainer do it for you. Skinfold calipers measure thickness at various points of your body. You simply take a fold of your skin and underlying fat, pull this away from the underlying muscle, and measure this with the calipers.   

Generally, men measure the chest, abdomen, and thigh. Women should measure their triceps, suprailiac (the region just above the right hip bone), and thigh. Add these numbers together and this will be your caliper measurement in millimeters. 

The mathematics involved in these numbers is complicated. Thankfully there are online calculators that will help you determine your body fat percentage form these measurements. 

A general breakdown of the recommended levels of body fat percentage will give you a sense of healthy levels: 

Age

20–29

30–39

40–49

50–59

60+

Male

7–17%

12–21%

14–23%

16–24%

17–25%

Female

16–24%

17–25%

19–28%

22–31%

22–33%

 

Remember that these figures are averages. Individuals do not always fit into these statistical averages. To best determine what is healthy for your body it is always best to work through body fat percentages with a doctor or other health care professional. 

If you are taking the measurements yourself, you are likely to err in one direction or another. You can correct this simply by being consistent in the way you measure. This means all measurements will be consistent and your progress will be measured against the same standard. 

Take your measurements at the same time every day and under the same conditions. For example, measure every morning when you get up and before you have eaten anything. This will ensure that any and all changes will follow the same standard of measurement.  

Is BMI the same as body fat percentage?

Body Mass Index, or BMI, and body fat percentage are different measurements. Your BMI does not give you an accurate account of your overall health.  

BMI is calculated from your total weight divided by the square of your body height. It is always expressed in kilograms per meter. BMI is generally used as a metric to determine if you are underweight, overweight, or obese. However, BMI does not account for body fat percentage. You can have a low body fat percentage but a relatively high BMI. This is especially the case for athletes. To get an accurate sense of your fitness, you need both BMI and body fat percentage. 

Body fat percentage FAQS

What is body fat percentage?

Body fat percentage is the total body fat in relation to your body mass. It is calculated as the mass of body fat divided by your total body mass, multiplied by 100. 

Is body fat percentage a sign of poor health?

No. You must maintain a certain level of body fat for basic biological functions. 

Is body fat percentage an indicator of fitness?

Your overall fitness is a product of many factors. A high or low body fat percentage does not equal physical fitness. 

What is the range for normal body fat percentage?

For men, the normal level of body fat percentage is approximately 15%. For women, it is about 17%. This changes significantly over age ranges and for different levels of activity. 

How do I measure body fat percentage?

The simplest way to measure body fat percentage is with skinfold calipers. You will take multiple measurements, total them, and place them in a table to determine the percentage. 

Is body fat percentage the same as the body mass index?

No BMI is a measure of your total body mass. Body fat percentage is a measure of body fat in relation to your total body mass. 

Wrapping things up

Most often, when we talk about fitness and health, fat becomes something of a bad word. Fat is the very thing we seek to lose and eliminate. For many of us, fat is the reason we exercise and workout. 

As it turns out, body fat is complicated. We must maintain a certain level of essential body fat in order to sustain basic biological functions in the body.

What is more, body fat plays an important role in fitness and health. Excess body fat, however, leads to health problems.

The measure that is most important in body fat percentage. This too is complicated. But by getting a reasonably accurate measure of body fat percentage, we can determine first of all our level of health as it concerns body mass. Whereas Body Mass Index, or BMI, only gives us an idea of our total body weight, body fat percentage allows us to see how much of that body mass is comprised of fat. 

What is more, the body fat percentage is not a single measurement. Our levels of body fat percentage change over the course of our lives and it changes with our level of activity. Women need to maintain a higher body fat percentage than men. 

As we come to understand body fat percentage, we need to keep in mind that the number alone does not indicate good or poor health. Body fat percentage in relation to our age, gender, and level of fitness indicate overall health. 

The important lesson for everyone is that body fat is not all bad. We need to maintain some body fat. Our individual body fat percentage is only one metric that determines our health and fitness. Finally, even if you do struggle with obesity, a measure of body fat percentage provides a valuable insight into working toward a meaningful fitness program. 

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