In the past men hit the weights room with the primary aim of bulking up, but today the main fitness goal of many is to “get lean” – namely to strip away the fat in your body to reveal the array of muscles beneath. Think Brad Pitt in Fight Club or Cristiano Ronaldo at any point in the past ten years. Ripped muscles, and not a shred of excess flab.
To achieve this physique there has been an increased focus among trainers and gym-goers alike on body fat percentage, with the ultimate target considered to be single digits. However, even if you’re not aiming for a shredded physique, it’s worth figuring out what your body fat percentage is and whether you need to improve it because it’s a good overall indicator of how healthy you are.
“Having a healthy body fat percentage can reduce the risk of numerous medical conditions,” says Dr Luke Powles, a GP at Bupa’s Crossrail Health Centre in London.
“An elevated body fat percentage has proven links to higher cholesterol levels and raised blood pressure, which are both factors that increase the chance of having a stroke or suffering from heart disease. As well as being linked to some types of cancer and diabetes, a higher body fat percentage can cause erectile dysfunction in men.
“It is also important not to have a body fat percentage that is too low – being underweight is linked with a number of health issues as well.”
For men aged 20-39, the healthy range for body fat percentage runs from 8% to 20%, and for men aged 40-59 it’s 11-22%. It’s now easier than ever before to monitor your body fat: you can get smart scales, fitness trackers and handheld scanners that provide the stats on your body composition. For fans of more old-school (and cheaper) methods, calipers will also do the job.
Before you start trying to shed fat, however, it’s useful to understand a bit about the biology behind body fat, starting with the two different types: essential and stored.
Essential fat, unsurprisingly, is essential to the normal and healthy functioning of the body. For men, this accounts for roughly 3% of total body weight. Without essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 from oily fish, nuts and seeds, it would be impossible for our bodies to process nutrients like the fat-soluble vitamins A, K, and D, which assist in immune health, blood clotting, and the absorption of calcium. Fat is also essential for the protection of our organs as well as to the insulation that regulates our internal temperatures.
The other type of fat, called storage fat, is the result of a calorie surplus. When we eat, calories that are not used for immediate functions (such as to provide the energy for respiration and to provide the fuel to keep your heart ticking) are converted into the triglycerides that make up storage fat. A frequent surplus of calories causes fat stores to accumulate, resulting in weight gain. On the flip side, a recurring calorie deficit forces the body to use up its stored fat as energy, depleting the supply and resulting in weight loss.
Put simply, fat is a collection of unused energy and is vital to our survival as humans. Body fat percentage, then, is the ratio of fat to total body weight. Many factors such as height, gender, and genetics can have an impact on this number, bringing us back to the topic in question: what is a healthy body fat percentage? Generally speaking, the ‘healthy’ range for men ages 20-40 starts as low as 8% and can reach up to 20%. A healthy woman of the same age group could have anywhere between 15 and 31% body fat. Here’s an indication of what a healthy body fat percentage is, taken from the Royal College of Nursing in November 2015.
While most people who fall within these numbers are in good shape, such broad ranges certainly do not take into account the individual fitness goals that each person may have. Bodybuilders looking to attain an ultra lean and muscular physique have some of the lowest average body fat percentages at 5-8%. Cyclists, gymnasts, and triathletes are also among the leanest of athletes, usually falling between 5 and 12% body fat. When it comes to looking ripped, guys should keep body fat between 5 and 10%.
Your body fat percentage is the best indication of health and fitness. It’s a far better marker of body composition than outdated systems like body mass index (BMI) or simply measuring your total weight using scales. Your total weight can fluctuate considerably due to regular hormonal swings, the time of day you weigh yourself and how much you’ve eaten or drunk just before stepping on the scales.
If you’re relatively tall and muscular, BMI makes no sense whatsoever and can typically shunt you into the overweight or obese category. Part of the problem is that it was never meant to apply to individuals, but to entire populations. It was developed in 1832 by a Belgian mathematician, Adolphe Quetelet, to define the average man (noting how “weight increases as the square of height”) but not to define if people were under or overweight.
In the 1980s it was seized upon as a useful formula to estimate expected life spans and has been the bane of the muscular man ever since – often denying strapping young men of the chance to join the police or similar physically-orientated organisations where they still use BMI in the recruitment process. Measuring your body fat percentage, however, records your specific composition of total fat, rather than an estimation based on your height and weight.
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