Why it's important to know your Body Fat Percentage

It’s that time of year.  We are fretting about how much weight we’ve gained over the holiday period and making resolutions about how we will lose it.  But before you jump on the weighing scales and start a diet, consider how knowing your Body Fat Percentage might help you with a practical and effective long-term strategy.

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What is the body fat percentage?

Women by nature have more essential body fat than men. Fat plays an important role in the body keeping you warm and protecting your organs and joints. But it is not healthy to have too much or too little fat. 

If your body fat percentage is too low, your resistance to diseases and energy levels are lower, and you are at risk of health issues. If your body fat percentage is too high, you have a higher risk of diabetes and other health problems.  

Fat storage changes as you age, and the location shifts more to the middle of the body.  Fat storage is highly influenced by reproductive hormones, which of course change during the menopause. This is why you often hear women say it seems much harder to shift excess weight after they are 50.

What are healthy percentages for women over 50?

A healthy body fat percentage for  women over 50 is no different to women under 50.  A healthy range of total body fat percentage can swing anywhere from 18 to 30 percent for women.  These are the numbers most often quoted :- 

  • Top athletes: 15 to 20%

  • Fit women: 21 to 24%

  • Healthy/acceptable: 25 to 32%

  • Overweight: 33% plus

What the scales don’t tell you

Bodyweight and body composition are not the same thing.  Your weight is the total weight of your body — muscle, bones, skin, organs, water etc.  

Weight and Body Mass Index BMI don’t take into account body composition.  This means you can be a very active women but appear to be overweight on the scales. But an active woman has more muscle and less body fat than someone who is not active.

People often focus on cardio exercise (running, spinning, aerobic exercise) when trying to lose weight but in fact adding more muscle helps you burn more fat.  If you gain more lean muscle this will also change your resting metabolic rate (RMR), that is the calories you burn at rest.

How to measure your body fat percentage

None of the measurement systems are completely accurate and can vary 1-4 per cent either way but if you are measuring over time at least you can see if you are going in the right direction.

One of the easiest ways is to use a skinfold caliper.  They are relatively cheap.  I’ve just bough some digital ones as I am interested in seeing whether the strength training exercises I am doing have an impact on my own body fat percentage over the next six months.  These measure the thickness of your subcutaneous fat, that is the fat underneath the skin at certain body locations.

For women, the triceps, area above the hip bone and either the thigh or abdomen are used for the 3-site measurement

For a 7-site measurement in women, the chest, area near the armpit and area beneath the shoulder blade are also measured. This video shows how to take the measurements.  

If you don’t want to use a caliper This article has some really practical advice including:

Get out of the bathroom and track your fit progress with these other more reliable indicators of fat loss and muscle-building success:

1.     Your jeans: Are your clothes looser? Are they fitting better and more comfortably?

2.     Your sets and reps in the gym: Has your performance improved? Can you train longer, lift heavier or complete your exercises with more ease?

3.     Your daily tasks: Are you finding it easier to carry all 10 bags of groceries from the car?

4.     Your energy levels. Do you find yourself less exhausted and more pumped when you first wake up?

5.     Your reflection. How do you appear in the mirror – jiggly all over or firm in parts? 

Finally remember….

Where you store fat on your body is important. Research has found that women who store fat around their bottoms, hips and thighs have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure than women who store fat in their abdomens and midsections.  Women whose waists are 35 inches or more have a higher risk of health problems than those with smaller waists, no matter how much they weigh.

Reducing your overall body fat through a combination of strength training and cardio are the best ways to change your body composition.  But being fit is about way more than being lean: it includes strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, balance, flexibility and much, much more. In addition, being healthy is about much more than being fit.

Rather than stressing about the numbers too much I like the phrase “your fat should support your fit.”

You might also be interested in 

 How much exercise should you do over 50

A video of strength and conditioning exercises