Ultra Low Body Fat Isn’t Healthy
In today’s world being ‘ripped’ and ‘cut’ with an ultra low body fat percentage is often considered the Holy Grail of most people’s fitness aspirations. Images of fitness models, bodybuilders and other athletes with abdominals rippling and every muscle beautifully defined with ultra low body fat percentages adorn the pages of so many magazines and advertisements for health related products and services that many are led to believe that being under 5% percent body fat ( for men) and under 10% (for women) is the be-all-and-end all to their fitness dreams and aspirations. For many it also represents the quality of being super fit, and sadly few are aware that models and athletes they look up to don’t stay at such ultra low body fat levels for more than a few weeks out of the year and that in that state they are often very far from being fit and healthy.
Bodybuilders & Cyclists Aren’t Healthy At Extremely Low Body Fat Levels
As a natural bodybuilder I regularly competed at an insanely low body fat percentage of 3%. It was a grueling experience every time and in that world anyone over five percent was considered fat! Keep in mind that the average healthy young male has a body fat percentage of 10-20%! This type of skewered perspective doesn’t only exist in the bodybuilding world, as the same rigorous standard applies for many other athletes as well. Long distance cyclists are a prime example. All the major contenders for the biggest cycling event in the world, the Tour De France, compete at just about 5% body fat or lower. Take a look at Lance Armstrong’s pictures right before a race and you’ll see that he has a bit of a gaunt look to him as opposed to what he looks like when he isn’t competing. In the cycling world the formula for winning an event like the Tour De France requires a sustainable energy output of 6.7 watts per kilogram of body weight. Increasing power is difficult however reducing body weight is a bit easier so cyclists do their best to be as light as possible by losing as much body fat as humanly possible.
Our Bodies Need Body Fat To Function
The problem is that our bodies need fat to function correctly and it might surprise you that the same athletes that look like the epitome of health don’t feel that energetic at such low body fat levels and suffer from suppressed immune systems and are extremely susceptible to colds and other viruses. Females usually experience a cessation in their menstrual cycle as a consequence of going too low as the body perceives itself to be in the throes of starvation and does its best to not get pregnant as it no longer has the capacity to carry a baby to full term with such low energy reserves. It is truly not a state that the human body wants to maintain and it explains to a large degree why it is inherently so difficult to reduce your body fat levels and why we have to go to unhealthy extremes to get ourselves at an ultra low body fat level.
What does it feel like to be under five percent body fat? I can tell from my experience that it isn’t pleasant at all. When I was competing the second my fat levels dropped below 5% the lethargy set in. I hardly had the energy or desire to do very much and my face had the sunken look of someone that hadn’t eaten in several months. It seemed as if someone so much as sneezed in my direction I would get a cold and I felt cold all the time (your body uses a layer of fat as a form of insulation to keep in your body heat- take that layer away and you lose heat very quickly and will have trouble staying warm in a cold environment.) Above all I would have difficulty staying asleep- the body perceives such low fat levels as a famine response and forces you to stay awake longer in the hopes of finding food. When I filmed my workout DVD I had already made the decision that I would never again follow any type of extreme diet nor would I ever let myself drop under 5% body fat. Not only is an ultra low body fat level unnatural but we know now that fluctuations in weight can result in an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and at the end of the day being healthy is more important than trying to achieve a low body fat percentage. The key is to find your own level and not use the calipers as part of a race to see how low you can go. Interestingly enough I can naturally maintain a level of 6 to 7 percent just by eating well and feel fantastic. But that relatively small dip of only two or more percentage points to under 5% makes a huge difference in terms of energy levels and overall health. It just goes to show that there is a fine line between being superfit and super unhealthy.
Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training ™ and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City.