People often think of body fatness as a matter of aesthetics, and while having certain physique or body fat percentage goals can come down to personal preferences, your body fat percentage can also influence your health.
For example, obesity, which is a condition marked by excessive body fat, is associated with adverse health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
However, although we can make blanket statements like “excessive body fat is unhealthy,” what exactly is “excessive”? And what is a healthy body fat percentage?
Moreover, though the heath discussions surrounding body fat percentage usually focus on high body fat percentages, can your body fat percentage be too low?
What is a healthy body fat percentage? Are there differences in ideal body fat percentages for men vs. women?
Is 18% body fat good? How is body fat percentage interpreted?
In this article, we will discuss how to measure body fat percentage and answer the question, “What is a healthy body fat percentage for men and women?
We will cover:
- What Is Body Fat Percentage?
- How Is Body Fat Percentage Measured?
- Is BMI the Same As Body Fat Percentage?
- What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
Let’s jump in.
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percentage refers to the relative amount of body fat (adipose tissue) you have overall compared to lean body mass.
Essentially, the health and medical communities distinguish your fat mass and your fat-free, or lean body mass.
Your fat mass is all of the fat in your body.
Body fat is stored in two different locations in the body.
Visceral fat is deep in the abdomen where it surrounds your organs.
While this type of fat plays an important role in cushioning and protecting your organs, excessive visceral fat is even more strongly associated with adverse health conditions such as metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease than fat located elsewhere in the body.
The second type or location of body fat is subcutaneous fat.
As the name describes, this fat is located just under the skin, on top of your muscles and bones.
You have subcutaneous fat underneath the skin around your entire body, but the particular pattern of body fat distribution depends on factors such as your sex, hormones, genetics, anatomy, age, and training status.
For example, women tend to accumulate more body fat in the breasts, buttocks, and thighs than men, and men often store more body fat in the abdomen.
All tissues in your body that aren’t adipose (fat), are considered lean body mass.
Although muscle comprises the majority of lean body mass, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels, connective tissues such as tendons and fascia, cartilage, blood, lymph, and other tissues are also part of your lean body mass.
Therefore, body fat percentage can be thought of as a measure of the amount of body fat you have relative to your total body mass, or your body fat versus your lean body mass.
For example, if you have 18% body fat, 18% of your total mass or weight is body fat (adipose tissue) and 72% is lean body mass.
If you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and have 18% body fat, you have 165 x 0.18 = 29.7 pounds of body fat.
How Is Body Fat Percentage Measured?
There are several different ways that you can measure your body fat percentage, though most of them are estimations.
The gold standard for measuring body fat percentage is hydrostatic (underwater) weighing.
This involves being submerged in a tank of water after expelling all of the air from your lungs, after which the amount of water you displace is used to help calculate your body size, and your weight under water can then be used to calculate your body density.
Because fat tissue is much less dense than lean body mass, your body density and body size can then be used to calculate your body fat percentage.
Most people don’t have access or the desire to undergo such an invasive or difficult test.
Therefore, there are lab tests and field tests that also estimate body fat percentage, including the following:
- Skinfold measurements: One of the more common ways of measuring your body fat percentage, particularly in fitness settings, is through the use of skinfold measurements. This involves using precise calipers to measure the thickness of pinches of skin and subcutaneous fat at certain sites in the body. Equations are then used to derive your estimated body fat percentage based on typical body fat distribution patterns.
- Plethysmography (BOD POD®): This is a laboratory tool that uses air displacement to calculate the total volume of the body, which can be used with body weight to calculate body density and thus body fat percentage.
- Bioelectrical impedance: Most body fat scales employ bioelectrical impedance analysis to measure body fat. The principle behind this body fat percentage measurement is that fat mass and fat free mass have different resistances to electrical current.
- Infrared: A specialized infrared-light-emitting probe is placed against an area of the body to assess fat mass and fat free mass.
- Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA): Though this machine is best known for measuring bone mineral density, it can also measure fat mass and thus body fat percentage.
- Circumference measurements: Circumference measurements involving using a measuring tape around specific body sites. The measurements are then plugged into equations to estimate body fat percentage.
Because basically all of these means of measuring body fat involve algorithms or some degree of estimation, there is an inherent measurement error of +/- 3%, and this number can be even further off if poor technique is used.
For example, skinfold measurements need to be taken at exact sites and using the proper pinch technique.
The key to getting more accurate body fat measurements is to follow the directions and protocol for the method you are using to a T and to stay consistent in the way you measure your body fat.
For instance, if you are using a body fat scale, weigh yourself at the same time each week according to the recommended instructions.
Is BMI the Same As Body Fat Percentage?
No discussion of body fat percentage is complete without discussing body mass index (BMI).
Although these two are often conflated, BMI is not the same thing as body fat percentage.
Again, your body fat percentage is the relative amount of body fat you have compared to lean body mass, whereas BMI is a measure of your weight relative to your height.
BMI does not take into account the specific composition or tissue that comprises your weight.
Body fat, muscle, bone, organs, etc. are all taken together.
Therefore, two different people of the same height and weight, but with very different body fat percentages, can have the same BMI.
BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared.
BMI = weight (kg) / [height (m)]2
For example, if you weigh 70 kg and are 165 cm tall, 70 / (1.65)2 = 25.7.
With pounds and inches, the formula for calculating BMI is weight (lb) / [height (in)]2 x 703.
For example, if you weigh 160 pounds and are 65 inches tall, [160 / (65)2] x 703 = 26.6.
You can calculate your BMI here.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), BMI is categorized as follows:
|18.5 – 24.9||Healthy Weight|
|25.0 – 29.9||Overweight|
|30.0 and Above||Obesity|
Some organizations add an additional classification of Morbid Obesity for a BMI of 35 or above.
A study that examined whether the BMI classifications would improperly classify the health risk of individuals found that there are indeed many people who get incorrectly stratified based on their BMI.
The study looked at the BMI data from 40,420 adults and looked at their blood pressure, triglyceride, cholesterol, glucose, insulin resistance, and C-reactive protein data to look at their true cardiometabolic risk.
Nearly half of individuals were categorized as overweight, 29% of those classified as obese, and even 16% of those whose BMI classified them as morbidly obese were metabolically healthy based on their other health markers.
Furthermore, over 30% of normal weight individuals were actually cardio-metabolically unhealthy based on their other health markers.
These results demonstrate that using BMI as a measure of cardiovascular and metabolic health risks is inherently flawed, especially at the individual level.
In other words, while associations between BMI and disease risk may have some merits at the population level, there are so many individuals that are exceptions to the “rules“ that unilaterally assuming that your BMI can accurately classify your health risks is problematic.
You can be “skinny fat,” which means that you are of normal weight but have an excessive amount of body fat relative to your lean body mass.
These individuals may have a normal BMI but be at an elevated risk for cardiovascular and metabolic health problems.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of people whose BMI places them in the overweight or obese category who are as good health.
The classic example is an athlete who has built tremendous muscle mass.
Because muscle tissue is so dense, a strong athlete can have a high weight relative to their height, and thus a high BMI.
This can categorize the athlete as overweight or obese based on BMI, yet the person might be extremely fit.
Consider the potential difference in health risk between two men who are both 5’10” inches (70 inches) and weigh 200 pounds.
This means both men have a BMI of 28.7, which classifies them as overweight.
However, the athlete has 8% body fat and the non-athlete has 30% body fat.
The difference in body composition would have a significant impact on their relative health risks, but only knowing BMI would provide an incomplete picture of this difference.
What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat is often demonized, particularly in the fitness and diet worlds, but body fat serves important physiological functions, including the following:
- Providing insulation to conserve body heat.
- Providing fuel for the production of energy.
- Providing padding or cushioning to internal organs.
So, if you’re actually measuring body fat rather than BMI, what is a healthy body fat percentage?
The ideal body fat percentage varies considerably based on sex and age.
According to the University of Pennsylvania, the average healthy adult body fat percentage range regardless of age is 15 to 20% for men and 20 to 25% for women.
As per their classification, women with more than 32% body fat and men with more than 25% body fat are considered to be at increased risk for disease.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, having a body fat percentage that is too low (considered by UPenn to be be under 8% for men and under 14% for women) is also associated with health issues because a certain amount of fat is required for hormonal function, organ cushioning, and for the absorption and production of certain nutrients.
The amount of essential fat for men is 3% and 13% for women.
Anything that approaches these levels can increase the risk of injury, illness, and nutritional deficiencies.
Moreover, if your body fat percentage is that low, it’s indicative that you’re not consuming enough calories for your body or are exercising excessively, both of which can cause significant stress and adverse health effects in their own right.
For instance, nutrient deficiencies and fluid/electrolyte imbalance from inadequate food intake can lead to increased risk of illness, fractures, reproductive dysfunction, and dehydration.
Medical complications associated with having a very low body fat percentage involve nearly every body function and system, and can increase the risk of heart damage, shrinkage of internal organs, gastrointestinal problems, compromised immunity, loss of reproductive function, muscle wasting, damage to the nervous system, and even death.
According to the University of Pennsylvania, the classifications for body fat percentages based on age and sex are as follows:
|Category||Body Fat Percentage for Women Aged 20-29||Body Fat Percentage for Women Aged 30-39||Body Fat Percentage for Women Aged 40-49||Body Fat Percentage for Women Aged 50-59||Body Fat Percentage for Women Aged 60-69|
|Dangerously Low||under 14%||under 14%||under 14%||under 14%||under 14%|
|Dangerously High||over 27.2%||over 29.2%||over 31.3%||over 34.6%||over 35.5%|
|Category||Body Fat Percentage for Men Aged 20-29||Body Fat Percentage for Men Aged 30-39||Body Fat Percentage for Men Aged 40-49||Body Fat Percentage for Men Aged 50-59||Body Fat Percentage for Men Aged 60-69|
|Dangerously Low||under 8%||under 8%||under 8%||under 8%||under 8%|
|Dangerously High||over 23.2%||over 25%||over 26.7%||over 27.9%||over 28.5%|
Other health and fitness organizations interpret body fat percentage a bit differently. Let’s see how they answer the question: what is a healthy body fat percentage?
- Essential Fat: < 5 percent
- Athletes: 5 to 10 percent
- General Fitness: 11 to 14 percent
- Good Health: 15 to 20 percent
- Overweight: 21 to 24 percent
- Too High: > 24
- Essential Fat: < 8 percent
- Athletes: 8 to 15 percent
- General Fitness: 16 to 23 percent
- Good Health: 24 to 30 percent
- Overweight: 31 to 36 percent
- Too High: > 37
Now that we have answered the question, what is a healthy body fat percentage, where do you stand?
Speak with your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your body fat percentage. It’s definitely possible to lose fat or gain fat by manipulating your diet and exercise.
If you are looking to get on a healthy diet, check out our Healthy Diets For Runners guide.