Menz Magazine

How to Measure your Body Fat Percentage

Body fat is critical to our health as it protects our organs and keeps us warm. Measuring our body fat can also be a good indicator for examining our overall health.

Here’s everything you need to know about body fat percentage, from what’s considered a healthy range to how to measure it.

What is a healthy body fat percentage?

Body fat percentage (BPF) is the percentage of your body that is fat tissue relative to your total body mass. While some fat is essential to the body, the higher percentage of fat you have, the more at risk you may be for certain health conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

“Body fat percentage is super helpful because it more accurately accesses somebody’s health risks,” says Naomi Parrella, MD, a doctor at Rush University Hospital specializing in primary care and weight loss services. “It changes throughout your life, even if the weight stays exactly the same.”

A very large 2019 study of participants of white-British descent found excess weight and body fat can cause a variety of heart and blood vessel diseases, including aortic valve stenosis – which is when heart valves narrow.

Another large 2020 study in Zhengzhou, China, found waist-to-hip ratio, BFP, and visceral fat area were predictive of type 2 diabetes in those over 18.

However, there isn’t one number that’s indicative of your health. A healthy BFP can vary greatly depending on your age, gender, and how active you are, according to Parrella.

Some fat on our body is essential to keep us functioning. If fat percentage dips too low, your body’s regular activities are disrupted. Athletes tend to fall a bit higher than essential fat, while optimal health can range from 18% to 31% for women and 10% to 25% for men.

Healthy body fat percentage for women

It’s important to keep in mind that every woman varies when it comes to body fat, so what may be healthy or normal for one woman may be different from another. It is always best to discuss any concerns or questions with your healthcare provider.

Category

Percentage

Essential fat

10% – 13%

Athletes

14% – 20%

Fitness

21% – 24%

Acceptable

25% – 31%

Obesity

> 32%

Category

Percentage

Essential fat

10% – 13%

Athletes

14% – 20%

Fitness

21% – 24%

Acceptable

25% – 31%

Obesity

> 32%

A healthy body fat percentage by age for women is as follows:

Age

Percentage

20 – 39

21% – 32%

40 – 59

23% – 33%

60 – 79

24% – 35%

Age

Percentage

20 – 39

21% – 32%

40 – 59

23% – 33%

60 – 79

24% – 35%

Healthy body fat percentage for men

Every man varies when it comes to body fat, so what may be normal or healthy for one man may not be the same for another. Again, it is always best to discuss any concerns or questions with your healthcare provider.

Here are average healthy body fat percentages for men:

Category

Percentage

Essential fat

2% – 5%

Athletes

6% – 13%

Fitness

14% – 17%

Acceptable

18% – 24%

Obesity

> 25%

And the recommended body fat percentage by age for men: 

Age

Percentage

20 – 39

8% – 19%

40 – 59

11% – 21%

60 – 79

13% – 24%

Category

Percentage

Essential fat

2% – 5%

Athletes

6% – 13%

Fitness

14% – 17%

Acceptable

18% – 24%

Obesity

> 25%

And the recommended body fat percentage by age for men: 

Age

Percentage

20 – 39

8% – 19%

40 – 59

11% – 21%

60 – 79

13% – 24%

How to measure body fat percentage
There are a variety of ways to measure your body fat percentage and, some are more accurate than others:

Skinfold calipers

A skinfold caliper measures body fat by gently squeezing the skin. To calculate body fat you must measure two to nine various sites across your body. The subscapular – lowest point under your shoulder blade – triceps, and back of the upper arm are most commonly measured.

You can buy skinfold calipers online or in-store, and prices range from a few bucks to over a hundred. While this product is a cheap option, it’s accuracy ranges from ± 3.5% to 5%, which is higher than more accurate methods. It also doesn’t account for fat distribution, says Parrella.

“If there’s extra fat overflowing around the organs, you can have inflammation that is in direct contact with all the important organs in your belly, which can cause a lot more health problems,” says Parrella. “The fat right under the skin is not necessarily linked to increased health problems, it could just be how your body is built.”

Bioelectrical impedance

This test sends low-level electrical currents through the body. Tissues with a lot of water such as muscle are highly conductive, while fat and bone slow the current down. The more resistance found in your body, the higher the fat percentage.

You can buy a BIA device online or at a store, and they range from $30 to well over a thousand.

BIA’s may be more accurate than skinfold calipers, but can still be inaccurate due to a variety of factors, including how hydrated you are at the time.

Other methods

There are some other methods for measuring your BFP, such as:

Hydrodensitometry -underwater weighing, which is normally conducted at universities for research or some training centers.

DXA (DEXA) X-ray scan, which is the most accurate of all the measurement tools and is conducted by healthcare professionals.

BMI vs. body fat percentage

BMI, or body mass index, is determined by dividing weight by height. While body fat percentage determines what percent of your body is fat, BMI places you in categories based on weight like underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese

BMI has its limitations, says Cassie Vanderwall, RD, a registered dietitian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Body mass index is a simple ratio and therefore individuals with shorter stature or shorter heights may have a higher BMI, but it might not be an indicator of poor health,” Vanderwall says. “Or for example, a weightlifter or a pregnant woman may be carrying more weight, but it’s a different kind of weight.”

BMI was also invented nearly 200 years ago by the Belgian statistician and astronomer Adolphe Quetelet, who focused on “average” white European men. Your age, sex, and ethnicity are not taken into account with BMI.

Body fat percentage is much more accurate than BMI, according to Parrella. But both measurements do not account for body fat distribution. This is important as health conditions are associated with upper-body fat, such as around your waist, versus lower body fat like that in your thighs.

When to talk to a doctor

It’s important to talk with your doctor about worries you may have regarding weight or body fat percentage, says Parrella. They can help you determine if weight loss is right for you.

Additionally, they can help you determine the right weight loss plan for you. “We want to help [patients] achieve the changes that they desire in a safe and effective manner for years to come versus a quick fix for two weeks,” says Vanderwall.

Insider’s takeaway

A healthy body fat percentage is more accurate than a simple BMI calculation and can be important when analyzing your risks for certain health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes. You can measure your BFP through devices like skinfold calipers, bioelectrical impedance, or most accurately with a DXA scan.

But it’s also important to keep in mind every body is different and we can find health and acceptance at every size, says Vanderwall. Keep an open dialogue with your doctor and if you have concerns about your BFP or weight, check in with a medical professional.

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