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How To Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage

average body fat percentage

First, let’s get on the same page.

No single factor gives a complete picture of your physical health. There are many indicators of your overall physical wellbeing—the level of nutrition you feed your body, your water intake, activity level, and how you maintain your health, for starters.

Having said that, there are numbers your doctor will want to keep track of, to assess your health over your lifetime. Two of these are your body fat percentage (BFP) and body mass index (BMI).

Understanding average body fat percentage, how to calculate it, and what this number tells you that your BMI does not, are all keys to maintaining your health long-term.

Today we explore all of these questions, to arm you with the tools you need to care for your body.

What Is Body Fat Percentage?

Our first question—what is body fat percentage?—lets us explain what we are actually looking at when we analyze our body composition.

At its core, body fat is the amount of fat you have, in relation to everything else that makes up your body. This ‘everything else’ includes:

  • Your muscles
  • Your organs
  • Your skeletal structure
  • Your tendons
  • Water and blood

What is the difference between Body Fat Percentage and Body Mass Index?

average body fat

Body Mass Index is the much better-known method used to work out if we are within a healthy weight range. Your doctor is likely to monitor your BMI at check-ups.

Body Mass Index uses your height and weight to find a ratio, which establishes whether you are underweight, of normal weight, or overweight.

The body fat percentage is different. Because it calculates fat specifically, it can give a completely different result to your BMI.

As an example, someone with a body fat percentage of 9% can weigh the same—and be the same height—as someone with a body fat percentage of 27%. The two people might even have the same, or similar BMI.

The person with the lower body fat percentage could have larger muscle mass, or their weight could be comprised of more bone or water content.

Both methods—BMI and body fat percentage—have their place. Body fat percentage, however, is a more accurate measure of how much you need to focus on fat reduction.


How Does Body Fat Vary?

There are a lot of variables that influence our body fat percentage.

Age

At different life stages we move through several healthy body fat percentage ranges. Our body type also influences how and where we store fat. Heredity and activity levels will play a part in our composition, too.

Gender

Finally, gender plays a major role in what is considered a healthy average body fat percentage.

We will explore the differences in body fat percentage by gender in a later section, but here’s what you need to know right now:

The range for a healthy BFP in female adults is higher than that of male adults. Essentially, women need more body fat to support their bodily functions. Our body fat helps regulate our body temperature, protects our organs and tissues, and is used to fuel our bodies. Women also require more body fat to support the reproductive system, and grow a healthy baby.

Another variable that can impact the value of body fat percentage measurements is one we might find a lot more obvious—fat distribution.

Body type

What is body fat percentage

Your body type dictates how and where your body stores its fat. Certain fat stores can impact our overall health, while others are relatively harmless.

Pear shape

If you have a pear shaped body, you are likely to store fat on your hips, thighs, buttocks and legs. Your upper body is likely to be smaller than your lower body. This body type has often been considered healthier than some others, since hip, thigh, and buttock fat don’t increase our risk of heart disease.

Research has shown that may not be the case. According to a recent study, storing fat in the lower body is still bad for your heart.

Hourglass shape

An hourglass figure is described as having shoulders and hips of similar width, and a smaller waist. Fat is generally evenly distributed in the upper and lower body, but not around the abdominal area. This isn’t considered to be a high-risk body type for heart disease.

Inverted triangle shape

This body type is characterized by a broader upper body, narrow waist, and slimmer lower body. If you have an inverted triangle shape, you are likely to gain weight around your neck, chin, shoulders, arms, and chest. Women of this body type may consider that your larger breasts increase your risk of breast cancer, although studies have widely acknowledged that this is not the case.

Column shape

This body shape generally stores fat evenly across the upper, mid, and lower body. Although this body shape is usually noticed in very slim people, it is possible for columns to gain fat like anyone else. Excess fat stored around the abdominal area of someone with a column shape will increase the risk of heart disease.

Apple shape

This body type generally stores fat around the abdominal area, and is considered the most dangerous body shape when you are overweight. Abdominal fat increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as some cancers.

The main reason abdominal fat is so dangerous is because it fills the space between organs , strains the pancreas, releases fatty acids into our blood, and elevates blood sugar levels. It also triggers our bodies to release cytokines, which cause heart disease.

Working Out The Average Body Fat Percentage

There are several methods which can be used in working out body fat percentage. We’ll explore these here. Some are more accurate, or affordable, than others.

Body Fat Calipers

Pinch your body fat away from your muscle, and clasp it with the caliper. Write down this measurement, and compare it to a body fat percentage chart to establish your result.

The caliper method doesn’t read full-body fat percentage, and generally asks you to do the caliper test on certain parts of the body. Some tests ask for up to 7 different measurements, while others may only require 3 measurements.

Pros of using body calipers:

  • Affordable—you can find them for as little as $5 online.
  • Easy to use at home.
  • Easy to track progress on a weekly or monthly basis.

Cons of using body calipers:

  • Not very accurate—calipers can underestimate body fat percentage by 2-3%.
  • Measurement error is higher for people with very little body fat, and also for people with a large amount of body fat.

average body fat for men

The YMCA measurement method

Taking measurements using the YMCA measurement method is slightly more time consuming than using body fat calipers, but requires no equipment or fancy techniques.

Pros of using the YMCA measurement:

  • Reasonably fast.
  • Easy to do at home.
  • Easy to track progress on a weekly or monthly basis.

Cons of using the YMCA measurement:

  • Not very accurate.
  • Relies too much on consistently measuring the same area accurately.
  • Open to user error.

Body Fat Scales and Monitors

An electrical current uses “biometrical impedance analysis” to work out your body fat percentage.

Pros of using Body Fat Scales:

  • Simple to use.

Cons of using Body Fat Scales:

  • Can be inaccurate as the readings are affected by water weight.
  • More costly than the first two methods.

Water Displacement Method

This method works by submerging your body in a custom-designed tank. Experts measure the amount of water displaced as you submerge yourself. This is then used to calculate tissue density and full-body fat composition.

Essentially, the more water you displace, the more of your body is said to be made up of bone and muscle.

Pros of using water displacement:

  • Extremely accurate when conducted under expert guidance.

Cons of using water displacement:

  • Time consuming.
  • Difficult to track on a regular basis.

DEXA Scanning

DEXA scanning uses dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry to estimate your muscle tissue, bone density, and fatty tissues. The scan gives off as much radiation as body imaging devices at airports, so it is relatively safe. This is considered to be the most effective form of measuring body fat percentage.

Pros of using DEXA scanning:

  • Gives an accurate full-body fat percentage result.
  • It takes under five minutes.
  • Allows you to identify which specific body areas have the most fat.

Cons of using DEXA scanning:

  • Cannot monitor your progress on a regular basis using this method.

The Bod Pod

This method is most similar to water displacement, except it uses air instead of water. It measures body mass, density, and volume.

Pros of using the Bod Pod:

  • Very accurate.
  • Provides a total overview of body fat percentage.
  • One of the most recommended methods.

Cons of using the Bod Pod:

  • One of the most accurate methods of measuring body fat percentage available.
  • Time consuming.

All the above methods have their place, and using a combination of two or three of them will help you keep an accurate record of your improvements over time.

If you’re looking for a very simple, free, quick, and accurate way of measuring body fat percentage on a regular basis—photos can help, too.

Taking photos—under the same conditions, in the same place, in the same outfit—can be the most clear and motivating method of monitoring body fat.

When you aim to keep as many of the conditions the same in each photo, you get an easy way to measure how well your clothes are fitting, and changes in areas where you store fat.

Why Average Body Fat Differs for Genders

average body fat for women

As we outlined earlier, women generally have a higher body fat percentage than men of the same age.

To expand on the points we’ve already mentioned, gender physiology dictates that women have a 10% higher fat makeup than men. If all other factors are equal—age, activity level, health—women also require a lower daily caloric intake.

In simple terms, women’s hormones are more efficient in converting fat stores to energy, too. Medications like birth control pills can also play a role in fat storage in women, since estrogen increases predisposition to weight gain.

Research has established that lifestyle and puberty are not a key influence on the gender difference in body fat percentage.

One study, conducted by the Department of Human Nutrition and Medicine at Otago University, showed that the body fat percentage of boys aged 3-8 years is consistently lower than that of girls at the same age. The boys had a lower fat mass, and higher lean tissue mass, too. In direct comparison, girls aged 3-8 years—in a healthy weight range for their age—had almost 50% more body fat than the boys.

Studies conducted since, have shown similar patterns in the 6-10 year age group, 9-10 year age group, 13-18 age group, and again at age 40.

These differences help us explain what may seem strange at first glance. A professional male athlete—at peak health and fitness—can have a body fat percentage of 10%. A professional female athlete—of comparable health and fitness—may have a body fat percentage of almost double that.

Similarly, an overweight male with a body fat percentage of 30% will look considerably different in shape and size than an overweight woman in the same percentage range.

Below we have outlined the average body fat percentages for both men and women, according to the Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital.

Average body fat percentage for women:

20-40 years old

Under fat: less than 21%

Healthy: 21-33%

Overweight: 33-39%

Obese: Over 39%

41-60 years old

Under fat: less than 23%

Healthy: 23-35%

Overweight: 35-40%

Obese: over 40%

61-79 years old

Under fat: less than 24%

Healthy: 24-36%

Overweight: 36-42%

Obese: over 40%

Average body fat percentage for men:

20-40 years old

Under fat: less than 8%

Healthy: 8-19%

Overweight: 19-25%

Obese: Over 25%

41-60 years old

Under fat: less than 11%

Healthy: 11-22%

Overweight: 22-27%

Obese: over 27%

61-79 years old

Under fat: less than 13%

Healthy: 13-25%

Overweight: 25-30%

Obese: over 30%

Conclusion

Body fat percentage and Body Mass Index can help us get a clear picture of one factor of our physical health—but they don’t give the full picture. Our physical health is affected—either positively or negatively—by the foods we eat, the amount of physical activity we get, the amount of water we drink, and our health literacy. By understanding how to take care of ourselves, body fat percentage can be a useful tool in our ongoing journey.