Body fat percentage is an important health measure – many would argue it’s even more important than just looking at body weight. This is because, when you really think about it, body weight is made up of a number of different factors:
All of these contribute to how much we weigh. But, we know that having too much fat on our bodies can lead to more serious health problems later, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So, having your body fat tested is a great idea so that we know how much of your body weight is made up of fat cells. Usually, the first place we go to get our body fat tested is our local gym. Normally, you would sign-up with one of their trainers and during your first training session with them, they will conduct some tests – like body fat testing. But there are a number of ways to test body fat percentage and each is different as far as their level of accuracy.
How to Test Your Body Fat Percentage
The cheapest and most convenient way to test body fat is using what’s called a “handheld BIA fat loss monitor.” These are the portable devices that you grab with your hands and hold straight out in front of you. After holding this device for about 10 seconds, the machine will perform some calculations and then display your body mass index (BMI) and your body fat percentage. Is this an accurate measure of your body fat? Because this type of machine is held in your hands, it really only tests the amount of fat in your upper body. So if you tend to hold more fat in your hips, for example, this may not be the most accurate test for you. Usually, this method may underestimate or overestimate your body fat percentage by anywhere from 3-5%. There’s another device that uses a similar method, but uses a scale. With your bare feet, you step on the scale and it tests your body fat while it weighs you. This device is also called a BIA fat loss monitor but the difference here is that it’s measuring the body fat percentage of your lower body only. So some higher end gyms or wealthy trainers will use both the handheld and scale methods to test your body fat and average those to measurements.
Another form of body fat testing uses skinfold measurements. Basically, a personal trainer will take what are called “skinfold calipers” and with those, begins pinching your skin on specific areas of your body. Using these measurements, the trainer performs some calculations and then tells you your body fat percentage. This form of testing can be really accurate, BUT, only if the trainer actually knows how to properly use these calipers. It takes practice to be able to perform this skinfold test correctly, so if someone offers to do this test for you, I would ask them how long they’ve been using this method and how many clients they’ve tested. With a skilled trainer, skinfold testing could overestimate or underestimate body fat by about 3%.
The most accurate forms of body fat testing are hydrostatic weighing and something called a “BOD POD.” Hydrostatic weighing is often called a “dunk tank.” This involves you sitting in a tank full of water, exhaling as much air out as you can and the trainer measures how far you sink. The more you sink, the less body fat you likely have. This is still considered to be the gold standard when it comes to measuring body fat and is usually off by only 2%. Unfortunately, there aren’t many facilities that actually have one of these. You’ll usually find one at your local college or university. A BOD POD is becoming more popular and many gyms have them on-site now. Basically, you climb into this tiny little booth, the trainer closes the door behind you, and you sit there for a minute or so while the machine’s built-in computer system takes some measurements. These BOD PODS may overestimate or underestimate body fat by 2-3%. So, I would say the dunk tank and bod pods are usually most accurate.
What's a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
So, what’s a healthy body fat percentage? Well, it differs based on your age and gender. Think about it, women typically carry more body fat and that’s a good thing. This extra body fat not only promotes their health but, as they reach child-rearing age, it will help support pregnancy. For males, we can get pretty low on our body fat percentages without experiencing any health risks. For both genders, increasing age usually leads to increase in body fat percentage but that’s not always a bad thing either. So, here’s a general breakdown:
•If you’re female, 20-32% body fat is fine. The lowest you would want to go is 8%. Any lower than that, and you will likely experience something called amenorrhea, which means you will stop having your monthly cycle. There’s also risk for having lower bone density if you go below 8% body fat.
•For guys, 10-22% body fat is acceptable. But, because guys don’t rely on fat cells for producing as many of our hormones like ladies do, we can go as low as 3% body fat and still be ok. For reference, 3% body fat is what professional bodybuilders try and hit right before a competition.
Increasing Your Body Fat Percentage
What if you happen to be on the lower end of body fat percentage and want to build it back up? I realize many of us are trying to do the opposite and get RID of body fat as fast as possible, but there are those that have to follow special diets because of a preexisting condition. And for those folks, just maintaining their body weight and body fat percentage is important. The best way to increase your body fat percentage is simply to eat more calories. But you want to be careful and not go overboard here. If you consume too many calories too fast, you’re going to probably make yourself feel pretty miserable and you may end up overshooting your goal.
I would recommend you aim to consume 100 to 250 extra calories per day. If you're on a ketogenic diet, this may be as simple as adding extra slices of avocado on your salad. For others that are not following this type of diet, you could add 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter on top of a piece of toast as a snack. It won’t take much.