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Healthy Body Fat Percentage
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What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

A lot of women don’t realize this, but achieving a healthy Body Fat Percentage is in fact the number one goal of any serious weight loss program.

Many women tend to obsess over their body weight, and set themselves a weight target when they’re trying to lose weight. This is exactly what I did myself for many years.

But as you’ll soon discover, your body weight doesn’t paint the full picture of what’s happening with your body – not by a long shot.

So What is Body Fat Percentage, Anyway?

Well, as the name suggests, your Body Fat Percentage is basically a measurement of what proportion of your total body weight is made up of fat, in percentage terms. It’s calculated by dividing the weight of all the fat in your body by your total body weight.

Sometimes it’s also called Body Composition.

Now, to most people fat is a dirty word, but the fact is that we actually need fat to survive. Without it, we’d die. So no, 0% would definitely NOT be a healthy Body Fat Percentage. In fact, lower is not necessarily better.

You see, the fat within our body is divided into 2 categories – Essential Fat and Storage Fat.

Essential Fat is necessary for our body to be able to maintain the vital functions that keep us alive, as well as reproductive functions. Having a Body Fat Percentage that’s lower than this would lead to real health problems.

For women the level of Essential Fat is 8% to 12% – pretty high when you think about it, especially when you compare them to men, who have only 1% to 3% Essential Fat. Women’s level is so much higher because of their hormonal functions and because it’s needed to be able to bear children.

Storage Fat is any fat in our body that’s excess to our level of Essential Fat. It’s stored in what’s called Adipose Tissue – which is just a fancy term for loose, soft fat tissue.

Most of our Storage Fat is held beneath the skin (this is called Subcutaneous Fat), so it’s very visible in terms of our body shape. Some Storage Fat however is stored around the vital organs in our chest and abdomen to protect them. Storage Fat also acts as a source of stored energy for us – you can think of it as our long-range fuel tank!

A Healthy Body Fat Percentage

From our discussion so far you can see that ideally your body should have the necessary level of Essential Fat, as well as an appropriate amount of Storage Fat.

The good news is that there are guidelines available that can help you figure out what a healthy Body Fat Percentage is for you. The bad news however, is that there are many such guidelines, and they often disagree with each other. So things can get pretty confusing.

Let’s break it down and try to make some sense of it all though.

The table below shows the ideal Body Fat Percentage values for women of various ages, based on World Health Organization recommendations:

Age Underfat Healthy Overweight Obese
20-40 Years <21% 21-33% 33-39% >39%
41-60 Years <23% 23-35% 35-40% >40%
61-79 Years <24% 24-36% 36-42% >42%

In my opinion, these recommendations are waaay too liberal. The healthiest women I know ALL have a Body Fat Percentage of less than 20%, and with a Body Fat Percentage of 30%, a woman will often visually have too much body fat and usually won’t be too happy with her appearance.

Of course, what’s healthy and what looks good doesn’t necessarily need to be the same thing.

But most women choose to lose weight because they want to look good, and it’s important to bear in mind that having a Body Fat Percentage lower than 21% certainly isn’t unhealthy, as the above recommendations might suggest.

The table below shows what I think are appropriate levels of Body Fat Percentage for women.

Fat Level Body Fat %
Athlete Up to 17%
Lean 17-22%
Average 22-25%
Above Average 25-29%
Overweight 29-55%
Obese Over 35%

There really is no one definitive answer as to what the most healthy Body Fat Percentage is, it varies for each individual depending on their age and lifestyle.

Being in the upper Lean to lower Average category would most likely be the healthiest area for the average woman.

If you’re quite fit and active on the other hand, the Athletic or lower Lean category might be more appropriate.

Why is it ok for an athletic woman to have a lower Body Fat Percentage?

Well, athletes and other women who exercise a lot often have a higher amount of muscle mass in their body than the average woman. That means the percentage of their body weight made up by fat will be lower as a result. So it’s not that the amount of fat in their body is too low, but rather, the rest of their body is heavier. This is why they can be in a lower category and still be very healthy.

At the end of the day, what the most appropriate Body Fat Percentage is for you is your call. As you’re losing weight, using these guidelines, as well as the mirror, will help you to decide. And of course if you have any doubts about the health aspects you can always consult your medical practitioner as well.

(Just keep in mind that they can often be a little conservative . . . but you didn’t hear that from me! He he!!)

Body Fat Percentage and Your Appearance

The table below will help you get a feel for how your Body Fat Percentage can reflect your physical appearance:

Person Average Body Fat %
Body Builder 8-15%
Fitness Model 9-15%
Triathlete 10-15%
Sprinter 12-20%
Cyclist 15-20%
Swimmer 14-24%
Tennis Player 16-24%
Basketball Player 20-27%

There’s a lot more to your appearance than Body Fat Percentage alone however. Muscle mass also has a major effect. For example, at a Body Fat Percentage of 10% a woman can look like a body builder (high muscle mass) or like an unhealthy fashion model (low muscle mass, very low fat).

The trick is to stay within the bounds of what’s considered to be a healthy Body Fat Percentage, while striving for the appearance that you wish for.

Have a look through some of the other articles in this category of the site to learn more about your Body Fat Percentage and how to measure it.

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Fabian

Fabian

Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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7 Comments

  1. Jody Childs
    8 January, 2012

    Great Info! I agree with you!

    Reply
  2. Lera Saabatmand
    3 February, 2012

    Great Post:)

    Reply
  3. Annetta B.
    2 March, 2012

    This was very informative. Keep up with good posts.

    Reply
  4. Jessie
    10 July, 2012

    Hi! Great information.. Just wondering what is the best way to measure body fat percentage? I have scales that show weight and body fat, is this an accurate way to measure? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Gloria
      Gloria
      11 July, 2012

      Hi Jessie, measuring body fat accurately isn’t all that easy. I have a really expensive skinfold caliper and even that is difficult, I had to do a lot of research to even find a testing method that gave sensible results.

      The most important thing is tracking changes in body fat, and for that using a good body fat bathroom scale is fine. That will show you when you’re gaining or losing fat and gaining or losing muscle. If you really want to know your fat percentage quite accurately then you can go somewhere that can measure it for you using a Bod Pod or a Dexa scan, and then you can compare that to what your scale says for reference. But as I said, it’s not really important to know, just monitoring changes is important.

      Reply
  5. Michelle B
    25 August, 2014

    I am 5,67m in height weigh 62kg am 42 years old and go to gym at least 4 times a week for at least 50 minutes a session. I have a super strong core and can prone for longer than 6,15 minutes row 500m in less 1min 50 sec and have a fabulous body, yet the scale tells me my body fat is 29%. I have to say some of this info I do let pass over my head as I am sure some people could take it to the extreme such as eating disorders and anorexia.

    Reply
    • Gloria
      Gloria Kaneko
      26 August, 2014

      Hi Michelle how tall did you say you are? And you used a bodyfat scale to read your fat percentage?

      Reply

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