How to Calculate your Body Fat Percentage

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Simply put, body fat percentage is the amount of fat in your body compared to everything else your body is made of. If you weigh 150 pounds and you have 10% body fat, that means that you have 15 pounds of fat and 135 pounds of lean body mass (bone, muscle, organ tissue, blood, water etc.). Your body needs a certain amount of fat to function at an optimal level. Fat regulates your body temperature, cushions and insulates your organs and tissues and is your body’s main form of energy storage.

Body fat percentage has nothing to do with the amount of muscle you have. Two people with the same body fat percentage of the same sex may look completely different because of different muscle mass.

Women need a higher body fat percentage than men. A male body builder, whose goal is very little fat and a lot more muscle, will have as low as 3 to 4 percent body fat. A female body builder can only get as low as 8 to 9 percent body fat. A professional male athlete may have 10 percent body fat, but a female professional athlete of similar athleticism and appearance may have 18 to 20 percent body fat.

Body Fat Percentage Chart

Essential Fat* 2 to 4% 10 to 12%
Athletes 5 to 13% 13% to 20%
Above Average or Fit 14 to 17% 21% to 24%
Acceptable 18 to 25% 25 to 31%
Obese 26% or more 31% or more

*Essential fat is the minimum amount of body fat your body needs to survive. Less than this amount will result in organ failure. Professional body builders will minimize their body fat to these levels for a show or contest. They maintain a higher body fat percentage the rest of the time in order to stay healthy and function properly.

Body Fat Percent Calculation

There are several different methods to calculate body fat percentage. Each also vary in accuracy and cost.

YMCA Measurement

This method employs information on your gender, weight and a linear measurement of your waist to calculate body fat percentage. Enter this information on a YMCA body fat calculator (many are available online). Because this method does not employ many different test sites, it is not very accurate.

US Navy Calculator and YMCA Measurement

These measurement calculations require information on your gender, weight, height and linear measurements of three parts of your body to calculate body fat percentage. Enter this information on a US Navy body fat calculator (many are available online). Because this method does not employ many different test sites, it is not accurate (but is more accurate than the YMCA method).

Body Fat Callipers

Callipers are available for around $5. Pull the fat away from your muscles, pinch it with the caliper and take the measurement. You can test several different parts of your body. Enter your measurements on a caliper body fat chart (many are available online) to determine body fat percentage. Generally speaking, this method tends to underestimate body fat percentage.

Body Fat Scales and Monitors

With this method, an electrical current is sent through your body and uses biometrical impedance analysis. Fat does not conduct electricity. When measuring bioelectrical impedance, the scale or monitor is measuring your fat tissue against the other tissues in your body. Because the current is sent through your body, which is made up of mostly water, the result is very inaccurate. For best accuracy, you must not eat or drink 4 hours prior, avoid exercising within 12 hours, refrain from alcohol consumption and diuretic use and complete urinary void.

Infrared Interactance

This method uses a fiber optic probe to measure body composition at various parts of your body. It has more than 4 percentage error, but is even higher when testing leaner and more obese people. You can get infrared interactance measured at some health clubs and weight loss centers for a small fee.

The Bod Pod

This method calculates body fat percentage by using air displacement to measure body mass, volume and density. You have to find a bod pod location near you (online). One session will put you back approximately $75. It’s worth it though, because this calculation of body fat percent is extremely accurate.

Water Displacement

This method calculates body fat percentage by measuring the amount of water displaced when you submerge your body in water. Find a facility easily by doing a search online. This method is extremely accurate, but costs a pretty penny.

Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) Scanning

This method is the most accurate way to calculate body fat percentage. It takes two x-rays of your body composition and generates the data. To get a DEXA scan, go to a health facility. All you have to do is lie down on an x-ray table for approximately 10 minutes. One session will put you back $50 to $150, depending on the facility.

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