Body fat percentages measure your body composition, taking into account not only your weight but the percentage of weight that is made up of fat. Because lean muscle takes up less space, those with low body fat have a tighter, more toned look. Body builders and fitness competitors strive for extremely low levels of body fat to make their muscles appear more defined. For the general population, healthy body fat levels help keep the metabolism revved and reduce the risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The body needs some fat cells, however--so how low is too low?
Male body fat should not dip below five percent, and females should not drop below 12 percent. On rare occasions, lower body fat may be achieved (say, for a body building competition) but should not be maintained for the long term. To achieve low levels of body fat, careful attention must be paid to macronutrient intake, hydration, exercise timing and food sources.
The average healthy person's body fat runs around 15 to 18 percent for men and 22 to 25 percent for women. Competitive male athletes usually possess about 8 to 12 percent body fat, and female athletes around 14 to 18 percent. Genetics, diet, age, body type, metabolism and activity level all affect your body fat levels.
Women will always have higher body fat percentages than men because of hormone levels and the need for extra energy stores for childbearing.
Measuring Body Fat
There are many ways to measure body fat. Accuracy of the methods vary, and are subject to the skill level of the individual conducting the test. Home body scales are notoriously inaccurate, while the ideal methods of hydrostatic (water) weighing and Dexa scans are expensive and not readily available. A certified personal trainer may perform a skin fold caliper test, the results of which can be relatively accurate. Specific mathematical formulas using your body measurements offer a rough estimate of your body fat levels. If you are preparing for a bodybuilding competition and the precise number is important to you, seek out a reliable professional to conduct your test.
Benefits of Low Body Fat
A healthy body fat level contributes to your overall health. Men over 25 percent body fat and women over 30 percent are considered obese and at risk for a myriad of health problems. Muscles pop when your body fat is lower--which is why low body fat is an asset for body builders. A six pack for men shows up at around 8 to 12 percent body fat.
Muscle uses more energy at rest than does fat, so those with lower body fat burn calories more efficiently--contributing to an ability to maintain their weight. Lower body fat levels improve sports performance. Excess body fat reduces speed, agility, endurance and movement efficiency.
Although low body fat levels are desirable, it is possible to go too low. Body fat is essentially stored energy, so when a person loses all their body fat, gym performance and overall activity levels will decline. Fat also helps insulate the body, so extremely low body fat levels make you intolerant to cold temperatures. Body fat pads the internal organs. Fat cells absorb and store the fat soluable vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat cells also play a role in the endocrine system, helping to regulate hormones and insulin response. Women whose body fat levels drop too low usually suffer from amenorrhea and infertility.
Obtaining Optimal Levels
Although a reduced calorie diet alone may help you drop pounds, it will most likely cannibalize your lean muscle mass, and you will not see a big change in your body fat percentage. Combine exercise (both aerobic and resistance training) with a healthy diet to lose body fat. Strive for the loss of only one or two pounds per week to maximize fat loss. As you reach lower and lower levels, the speed of weight loss slows. Remember, to reduce your body fat, you still need some fat in your diet to remain healthy.