Understanding your body fat percentage is a good way to determine if current fitness models are working, if you’re healthy, and if you’re at risk for certain diseases if you don’t make changes.
However, calculating body fat is a different process for everyone. For example, female body fat percentage isn’t the same as a male’s, so it’s important to understand the guidelines that work for your age/fitness level/personal health goals.
In this guide, learn about body fat percentage numbers to keep in mind, plus three ways you can measure body fat.
Keep in mind, you should consult a doctor to determine what a healthy weight looks like for you. This article should not be used as a substitute for consulting advice from a medical provider or licensed wellness professionals.
Healthy Body Fat Percentage
Healthy body fat percentages range between 8 and 30 percent, depending on age, gender, physical activity level, and other factors. For optimal fitness performance, which is different from overall health, low body fat numbers might be more desirable, depending on the sport.
At higher body fat percentages, one’s risk of cardiovascular disease also increases. Heart disease isn’t the only ailment that can result from excess body fat, though—type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, and poorer quality of life are all associated with high body fat percentage.
Male Body Fat Percentage
A healthy range for young men is between 8 and 19 percent under the age of 40. Due to more muscle definition and muscle mass, men are typically healthier at lower body fat percentages than women.
Men tend to store abdominal fat and fat in the sides of their midsection, a pattern known as android fat patterning.
Female Body Fat Percentage
A good body fat percentage for women to limit health risks is 21 to 32 percent body fat under the age of 40. Beyond 40, the number goes up slightly to 33 percent.
Biological differences cause women to store more body fat than men, mostly due to the hormone estrogen.
Women tend to store fat in their legs and hips, a pattern known as gynoid fat patterning. Even female athletes, typically, need more body fat than men for health purposes.
Body Fat Percentage vs. Body Composition
Body fat percentage isn’t the same as body composition. Your BFP is a true reading of how much fat mass you have.
Body composition measures all of the body’s tissues—bones, organs, subcutaneous fat, fat, and other matter. Each is calculated as a percentage.
The two are, of course, linked. Changing your body fat percentage would impact your ratio and vice versa. DEXA scanners are popular tools used for assessing body composition.
Body Fat Percentage vs. Body Mass Index
Body Mass Index, or BMI calculation, is another popular method used to determine size and overall health. But it’s not the same as calculating one’s own body fat percentage, either.
The BMI formula calculates your height and weight to give you a reading.
According to the Center for Disease Control:
- If your BMI is less than 18.5, it falls within the underweight range.
- If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the normal/healthy weight range.
- If your BMI is 25.0 to 29.9, it falls within the overweight range.
- If your BMI is 30.0 or higher, it falls within the obese range
BMI does help you understand if you have a high or low body fat percentage in some ways; however, it doesn’t take into account lean muscle or muscle mass.
Someone with more muscle could be considered “overweight” according to the BMI scale even if they had such low body fat that they had a six-pack.
Is There an Ideal Body Fat Percentage?
This is a loaded question that can’t be answered for all people in a few sentences, because ideal body fat percentages exist for both men and women of all shapes and sizes.
That said, for most people, ideal body fat percentages are a combination of sticking within healthy ranges, enjoying how you look, and if you’re an athlete, being at a body fat percentage that boosts performance.
For example, a long-distance female runner may want a lower body fat percentage than an older man who just wants to lower disease risk.
Actually, the female runner’s body fat might be lower than the man’s. If both people are happy when measuring body fat, that could be viewed as a win.
Measuring Body Fat Percentage at Home
1. Skinfold Calipers
Skinfold calipers use a pinch test to measure your body fat percentages on your hips, arms, legs, stomach, and sometimes neck.
Calipers are available online for under $10. They are not as accurate as other electronic body fat percentage measurement tools, though.
2. Hydrostatic Weighing
Submerging oneself, also known as underwater weighing, is another way to accurately calculate body fat percentage.
The measurement is based on displacement in the water, so it’s considered a very accurate test. You may have to go to a center and pay a larger fee to get a reading, though.
3. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis
Biolectrical tests generate a rough estimate of your body fat percentage by sending electrical current through the body.
Because each tissue acts as a different conductor of electricity, the scanner is able to determine if you have low or high body fat, as well as overall body composition metrics, which can be retested every few months to see how training is going.
These tests also take out the possibility of human error, making them pretty accurate.