What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

By Kevin Rail

There has always been this attraction people have had with scales and body weight. Although this might be quick and easy, there is a better way. It is called body fat percentage. Determining body fat is a far superior way to classify one as “in shape,” or not.


It is very important to know more than just scale weight. Someone may look completely healthy and even be within his weight range, but still have a high body fat percentage. It is not uncommon for these people to have poor diets and exercise habits.


The function of body fat percentage is to see how much free form mass the body has. In other words, this is the opposite of fat free mass which is everything in the body BUT fat itself. The percentage is taken off of this number.


Body fat can be tested in various ways. One of the most accurate methods is hydrostatic testing. This is usually done in a laboratory at a university. The hydrostatic method is also called underwater weighing and is based on the body’s weight underwater with all the air being expelled from the lungs. It is not easy or very user friendly. Another method used to determine body fat is with a body fat analyzer. These are quick, convenient and can be found at most sporting goods stores. They are either hand held or stepped on in bare feet. The step on versions usually double as scales too. The body fat caliper is another popular instrument used. It is a hand held device that pinches the skin at various locations that are called skinfolds. The body fat percentage is based on an average of density of fat at these areas.


Body fat percentage has a range for every age group, both male and female. It is important for people to know where they fall in this range to see if they are at risk for disease or not. For quick reference, here are the ranges:

Essential fat: Women 10 to 12 percent, Men 2 to 4 percent. This is usually considered unhealthy and most who are in this range are ultra endurance competitors or triathletes.

Athletes: Women 14 to 20 percent, Men 6 to 13 percent. This range is mostly seen in people who play football, baseball, tennis and basketball.

Fitness: Women 21 to 24 percent, Men 14 to 17 percent. This would be considered the gold standard or target body fat percentage.

Acceptable: Women 15 to 31 percent, Men 18 to 25 percent.

Obese: Women over 32 percent, Men over 25 percent. This is where health risks are high. Action should be taken immediately if someone is in this range.


If someone has a low body fat percentage, chances are they are in good shape and exercise daily, leading to many healthful benefits. One benefit is that less stress is put on the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Another benefit is that it preserves the joints and allows the body to move around easier. This is also known as having a good “range of motion.” Lastly, and possibly most important, having a low body fat can increase self esteem.

Expert Insight

Getting very lean with low body fat percentage is a great thing to achieve, but it can become an addiction. It is wise to recognize signs and to know when enough is enough. Some things to look for are irritability, mood swings, sleep disturbances, hot and cold flashes and easily getting bruised. If these conditions were to linger on for long periods of time, the body’s hormones can be affected in a negative way with possible irreversible damage. A lot of body builders get to this point during a competition, but go back to at least athletic levels in their off time.