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The Ideal Body Fat Percentage

Although people tend to focus on the weight they see on the scale, body fat percentage is actually a better indicator of health. Those with lower levels of body fat look better even at higher weights since they have a more muscular body. They also burn more calories even when they are at rest since muscle requires more calories to sustain than fat. The ideal body fat percentage depends on whether a person is male or female, since women need more body fat than men.

Ideal Percentage

A certain amount of body fat is necessary to your body. According to ACE Fitness, for women this is between 10 and 13 percent, and for men this is between 2 and 5 percent. Athletes usually have body fat percentages ranging from 14 to 20 percent for women and 6 to 13 percent for men. Women who have body fat percentages of 32 percent or higher and men who have more than 25 percent body fat are considered obese. Aiming for a percentage of between 21 and 24 for women and between 14 and 17 for men will put you in the fit range.


Definition of Lean Body

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Although many people use body mass index, or BMI, to get an estimate of body fat percentage, this method does not distinguish between lean and fat tissues. Other methods can give you a more accurate idea of your body fat percentage, including skinfold measurements, underwater weighing, bioelectrical impedance, the Bod Pod or air displacement, dual energy x-ray absorptiometry or DEXA, and near infrared interactance Futrex 5000. Underwater weighing is currently considered to be the gold standard method, according to Georgia State University, with DEXA being perhaps more accurate but expensive, and skinfold measurements more common but less accurate.


The location of the fat is just as important as the amount of fat when considering the ideal body fat percentage. Those who have a high waist to hip ratio and what is commonly considered to be an apple shape have a higher risk of mortality as they get older than those who carry their weight around their hips, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This means that you can have a lower body fat percentage and still have higher risks due to where you carry your fat.


What Is Normal Body Fat?

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Maintaining an ideal body fat percentage will keep you healthier as you age, putting you at less risk of disability. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that having a very high percentage of body fat was an independent risk factor of becoming disabled as a person aged. There was no added risk for those who had low levels of fat-free mass, or lean body mass. It is better to be thinner but not very muscular than to have high levels of body fat.


Since the methods for measuring body fat are prone to error and not perfectly accurate, keep in mind that changes in body fat could be due to a particular measurement rather than actual losses. Measurements should be done a couple months apart to help compensate for this.

Keep in mind that all weight loss is not fat loss. According to ACE Fitness expert Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, the best way to lose body fat is to combine cardiovascular exercise and resistance training with weight loss to limit the loss of lean muscle tissue, which could otherwise account for up to 25 percent of weight lost.