Nowadays the gold marker by which all health and fitness levels seem to be measured seems to be body fat percentages. Ask just about anyone that is seriously into their fitness regime what their body fat percentage is and nine out of ten times they can tell you exactly what it is. When I started out as a personal trainer, some 20 years ago, I kept calipers as part of my training kit and was very conscientious about being ready to measure my clients on a regular basis. On my first day of training, my coach walked to me and asked me what was I doing with the calipers and the clipboard. Somewhat puzzled, I answered that the personal training manuals said that it was key to measure body fat percentage as an indicator of a client’s progress. He laughed and gave me some of the best advice in my entire career as a trainer; he said that if a client can’t look in the mirror and see the differences in their body or see that their clothes fit differently as time goes on, then I am simply not doing my job! He added that at the end of the day, a change in numbers means nothing if your client still has significant layers of fat obscuring their midsection. No one is going to walk around with their body fat numbers to show their progress in the gym- the progress should bee self evident in the way they look! To this day I don’t use body fat testing as a tool in my personal training practice in New York City, but in this post I explore the various ways of testing available on the market to toady, as well as why in the end it’s how you look that matters, not the numbers.
Body Fat Measurements- BMI Examples
Body fat testing can serve a useful purpose to some degree in that it helps give some idea of how much body fat and how much muscle you are carrying at any given time, a reading that the scale or simple Body Mass Index estimates sometimes cannot give. I remember when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and weighed in at a healthy 220 lbs at a height of 6 feet tall. I was told I was significantly overweight and would have to lose at least 30 to 40 lbs before I could get enlist. My BMI was 29.8, which gave me a reading that placed me on the higher end of being overweight. In fact, according to the numbers, I was almost obese. I couldn’t tell you how funny this was as I had a body fat level of about 8-7% at the time- complete with rippling abdominals and not an ounce of fat really visible on my frame. When I stripped down so the recruiter could see what I looked like under my clothes (it was my first winter in the United States and I had quite a lot of layers on), he was pretty shocked. Needless to say I had nothing to worry about, but it would be a story I would hear over and over in doctors’ offices before they had a chance to see what I actually looked like. To this day at 225 lbs and at a body fat level of 6-7% according to BMI measurements, I am now officially obese, which really highlights the limitations of the BMI scales for muscular individuals. To be fair- it has been acknowledged that athletic people can’t be accurately measured using BMI scales.
Body fat is a bit more reliable, but again, there are always limitations based on the method used to define it. There are many ways to measure your body fat, some being more accurate than others, but at the end of the day, it isn’t the number that matters, but the changes in the numbers as you keep on measuring using whatever method you choose.
The Simple Tape Measure Method
With tape measure and caliper testing, people who are muscular can get numbers 3 to 5 percent higher than their true percent body fat percentages. This is because they don’t have a lot of fat inside their muscles, so their measurements may be lower than this tape measure test indicates.
Conversely, if a person is skinny but doesn’t have much muscle, this body fat test may yield a number 3 to 5 percent lower than his or her true percent body fat. Though they look thin, unfit skinny people really have more than the usual amount of fat inside their muscles, which you can’t see from the outside. So, what’s the bottom line? For many people, this tape measure test is enough to give you an idea of your body fat and it can be done frequently at little or no cost.
Bioelectrical Impedance Testing
Bio-electrical impedance testing is a fairly common method and is being used more and more in scales that you can have at home. The way it works is that a small electrical charge is sent through the body. The greater the resistance (measured in ohms), the more fat is present, because fat interferes does not conduct electricity as well as muscle does. The lesser the resistance, the more muscle tissue is present, because lean tissue is highly conductive due to its high water content. It can be off by quite a wide margin, as to be accurate hydration levels have to be exactly the same each time as well as the amount of food in your stomach and intestines. The test also tends to overestimate percent body fat in very lean individuals, (sound familiar?) and underestimate body fat in obese people.
Additionally the handheld devices only measure fat levels in the upper body- sending a current through one arm and out the other arm, while and digital scales only measure fat levels in the lower body- current goes up one leg and down the other). Both types models won’t take abdominal fat storage into account, so you’re not getting a full picture of the fat level of your entire body at any time, which is significant since it’s abdominal fat that matters the most in terms of health risks. (See my article here on the dangers of visceral abdominal fat.)
Skin Fold Caliper Testing
With the skin fold testing, calipers are used to pinch certain parts of the body and then determine the body fat percentage based on the assumption that the amount of fat stored at these various sites is proportional to a person’s overall body fat, thus by measuring several sites, total body fat may be calculated. It is a pretty reliable test, if the same person performs it each time (it is a skill and there can be wide ranges in reading from different people performing them, as it does take some practice to master.) However there are limits. Some people just don’t pinch easily- and it is hard to get reading from them. Others have such high body fat levels that the calipers cannot open wide enough to pinch accurately and the tests will thus underestimate their levels.
The Golden Standard- Hydrostatic Testing
This can be a pretty involved, (and expensive), process, bordering on the extreme for most. Hydrostatic testing for years has been the golden standard, where you are completely immersed in water and then asked to blow as much air as possible out of your lungs. Not exactly a great way to spend and afternoon, but it does give a very precise reading, but is far more involved for most people (myself included) and while more accurate than the caliper tests or simple measurement estimations based on taking measurements from various parts of the body, it still has some degree of error, especially when it comes to athletes- who tend to have higher bone densities than the rest of the population and thus can read to have a higher fat percentage than is actually true. Differences in bone densities based on race also can throw readings off to a degree as well.
There are other methods that are being used more and more, from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Computed Tomography (Cat Scans), Near Infrared Interactance and Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry. All seeking to find more and more accurate ways to measure body fat. Most are way too expensive and time consuming for most as part of a regular regime to record someone’s progress outside of a clinical setting.
What Is A Healthy Body Fat Percentage
While I personally shy away from the whole idea of body fat testing, as in my personal training practice, a healthy body fat percentage is when you can look in the mirror and see very little evidence of fat on your body- end of story. Numbers don’t mean that much as at the end of the day it all comes down to what you look like with your clothes off. That being said, there are some standards from various organizations that you should know to start off with, in terms of what is healthy and what is unhealthy.
The American Council on Exercise recommends that body fat levels should be 6-25% for men and 14-31% for women.
American Dietetic Association recommends that men should have 15-18% body fat and women should have 20-25% body fat.
Body fat percentages for high level athletes can vary from sport to sport. Healthy male athletes may have body fat levels as low as 5-12% body fat, and healthy female athletes can at times be as low as 12-20%.
Body Fat Is Not The Only Indicator Of How Good You Will Look Or Good Health
One of the reasons that I stress that the mirror is more important than any reading you may have, no matter how accurate the method used, is that where you hold your body fat is more important than what your percentage is. For example, my experience has been that two people can have exactly the same body fat percentages and look as different as night and day. Some people can have rippling abs with 15% body fat whereas others have to go as low as 6% to start seeing real definition in their stomach areas.
More importantly the risk of fat related conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers is determined by where you hold your body fat. Fat around the abdominal area holds the greatest risk for potential health problems, while fat around the hips and thighs for women seem to be relatively harmless with respect to these health problems.
Although two people can have the weight or the same body fat percentage, that doesn’t mean they face the same health risks. Where body fat is located can place a person at far greater risk for fat-related health conditions such as: cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even certain types of cancers.
It is important, for health and well-being, to not only know your body fat percentage but to also pay attention to where that fat is located. Fat around the abdomen may present the greatest risk for health problems. In contrast, fat around the hips and thighs is most common in females and seems relatively harmless with respect to these health problems. So don’t get too hung up on the numbers.
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