Saturday, May 16, 2009

What's a healthy body fat percentage?

If you've picked up a fitness magazine any time in the last decade you've probably read something to the effect that scale weight doesn't matter, it's your body fat percentage that determines whether your diet and exercise regimen (or lack of same) is working for you. And that's absolutely correct as far as it goes. You may even know that for adult women a body fat percentage of 22% is considered to be ideal from a health standpoint, while for adult men 15% is considered to be optimum.

But what may be confusing you is that in that same magazine you're not likely to see a single model whose body fat percentage is anywhere close to that healthy ideal. The typical Oxygen model has a body fat percentage in the single digits, while the typical fitness model in a publication like Fitness or Shape has a body fat percentage that's only slightly higher, not because she's carrying more fat but because she doesn't have as much muscle mass as the Oxygen models. Men's magazines are the same: most of the models in Men's Fitness and the like have a body fat percentage that's a good ten points lower than what's recommended for health.

Because of this, most people have no idea what a healthily lean body actually looks like.
Okay, let me rephrase. I don't mean to say that that magazine models are unhealthy, although some of the women in particular undoubtedly are, at least if they try to maintain their physiques at that degree of leanness year-round. Generally speaking, as long as a woman has 10-12% body fat, that's sufficient to regulate hormones and allow for menstruation. For men, it's more like 2-4%. There's a range of healthy body fat percentages, and while most fitness models hover at the extreme low end of the range they're within it. As are most professional athletes. As are many of the celebrities in "glamour" professions such as acting, who must maintain lean physiques in order to be considered for roles that demand a degree of physical attractiveness.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that while we are constantly barraged with images of people who're at the very low end of the healthy body fat percentage spectrum but only rarely see images of people who're at the higher end--the end that's actually considered optimal for health for most people. Or rather, we may see images of these people, but generally not as something to emulate. On the contrary, if female they're likely to be criticized for their "lumpy" thighs or "flabby" arms, and if male they may be tweaked for their "love handles" or "beer belly." Remember Britney Spears at the VMAs a couple years ago, when she wore that black bikini thing and sleep-walked her way through "Gimme More"? She totally deserved the bad reviews of her performance, but honestly her body looked perfectly fine to me. Taking into account the 10 or so pounds the camera generally adds, I'm guessing she was about 20-22 percent body fat. Fatter than a fitness model for sure, but by no means overfat though you'd never know it from the awful things her critics said about the way her body looked in the revealing outfit she chose to wear.

I not infrequently am hired by clients whose bodies look a lot like Britney's, who think they need to be a lot leaner in order to be healthy. They're often quite surprised to learn that from a health standpoint they don't need to change an ounce. Could they be even leaner without sacrificing health? Sure, and if that's what they decide they want I'm happy to help them achieve that goal. Otherwise, we can cross fat loss off the list of physical goals and move on to other important things such as building bone, increasing strength, and improving flexibility and balance. There's a lot more to wellness than just achieving an ideal body composition, right?