“I want to lose weight,” is an all too common turn of phrase today. But it’s time to dispel the misconceptions of weight. Because weight is not the end all be all. Gasp…Shock…This guy can’t be serious. He’s not!
It’s true that many Americans are obese and “overweight.” However, we use that term “overweight,” for the sake of convenience. Because when we look at the health and fitness of people weight is just one factor.
In the diamond cutting industry, gems are measured and priced on several different factors: weight, cut, color and clarity. These all determine the price of the diamond and thus how beautiful, rare and valuable the gem is. Much like diamonds, health is measured in a multitude of ways. Here we’ll focus on one major aspect that affects a large amount of people. The issue of body fat.
What is it?
The body is composed of water, bone, muscle, organs and fat. Fat is divided into visceral, subcutaneous and intermuscular. Visceral fat surrounds and protects the organs such as the heart, lungs, liver, etc. Intermuscular fat resides between muscles and again is protective and essential. Subcutaneous fat lies below the surface of the skin and is where we store excess fat.
Why is it important?
This excess body fat is why Americans are considered “obese.” There’s too much excess fat. This excess fat can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and a whole host of other problems.
This is why fitness experts, physicians and other health professionals are often more concerned with a person’s body fat percentage. For a more detailed discussion on body fat basics visit Shape Up America.
Body Fat Percentage
Body fat percentage is the percent of your body weight that is fat. Everyone needs a certain amount of body fat. This is called essential body fat. It can range from as low as 3-5 percent, for males, to 12-14 percent, for females. Females need a higher percentage of essential body fat due to certain physiological differences to males.
The proper body fat percentage is going to vary from person to person depending on their age and gender. But the American Council on Exercise has provided some basic guidelines for what they consider healthy body fat percentage ranges.
Age: 18-39 years
Age: 40-59 years
Age: 60-79 years
See what Mark Perry—CSCS, CPT—has to say about ideal body fat percentages here.
Keep in mind, athletes and extremely fit individuals can go lower than this as long as they don’t dip below the essential body fat percentage. But how do we know our body fat percentage.
Measuring Body Fat
There are a number of methods to measure body fat. These range from very expensive and accurate to inexpensive and less accurate. Here we’ll discuss three basic, easy, fairly accurate, and inexpensive ways to measure body fat.
This involves a small, harmless electric signal being sent through the body. The electric signal travels easier through things like water, blood and muscle than bone, air and body fat. So once the signal has made the circuit through the body, it takes how much it was resisted and couples this information with the height, weight, age and gender of the individual. We then get the percent body fat.
There are a number of scales on the commercial market that measure bioelectric impedance. Many of these are accurate to within 1-5 percent of actual body fat.
Skin Fold Test
This involves measuring the amount of subcutaneous fat on a person’s body through use of a set of calipers. The amount of fat is measured by selecting points on the body, then pinching and pulling the skin away from the underlying muscle and fitting the calipers to the fold. The number—in millimeters—is recorded and then plugged into an equation to determine the individuals body fat percentage.
If you have a set of calipers try the nine point body fat test.
Spots to measure:
- Be sure to take measurements on the righthand side of the body.
- Pec: between the shoulder and collar bone
- Upper Back: between shoulder blade and spine
- Bicep: front part of the arm between the shoulder and elbow
- Tricep: back part of the arm between shoulder and elbow
- Abdomen: one inch to the right of the navel
- Iliac Crest: directly above the bone of the hips on the front of the body
- Kidney: back of the body on the lower right hand side
- Quadricep: front of the leg between the hip and the knee
- Calf: the back lower portion of the leg; pinch and measure at the point where the calf muscle is most defined and diamond shaped
Add these nine numbers up. Divide this number by total body weight. Multiply this number by the factor 0.27 and we get the percent body fat.
- Joe: 175 lbs
- Pec: 4 mm
- Upper Back: 8.5 mm
- Bicep: 3 mm
- Tricep: 6 mm
- Abdomen: 15
- Iliac Crest: 13 mm
- Kidney: 5 mm
- Quadricep: 12 mm
- Calf: 4 mm
- Joe has 10.8771 (10.9) percent body fat. He’s one athletic dude.
Tape Measure Test
This method was developed by Covert Bailey and outlined in his best selling book “The Ultimate Fit or Fat,” in 1999. Bailey did a series of experiements and determined that this test can be accurate to within 5 percent—depending on other factors such as athleticism.
Measure the circumference of these body parts on your dominant side—where applicable i.e. righthanded people measure right wrist.
- Males: waist, hips, forearm, wrist
- Females: hips, thigh, calf, wrist
- Male (30 years and younger):
- Waist+(0.5*hips)-(3*forearm)-wrist=percent body fat
- 32+(0.5*34)-(3*11)-8=8% body fat
- Male (older than 30 years)
- Waist+(0.5*hips)-(2.7*forearm)-wrist=percent body fat
- 34+(0.5*38)-(2.7*12)-9=11.6% body fat
- Female (30 years and younger)
- Hips+(0.8*thigh)-(2*calf)-wrist=percent body fat
- 36+(0.8*21)-(2*12)-5.75=23% body fat
- Female (older than 30 years)
- Hips+thigh-(2*calf)-wrist=percent body fat
- 39+23-(2*13.5)-6=29% body fat
These numbers, again, aren’t 100% accurate, but are generally within about 5%. So for our female with 23% body fat, she could actually be in the range of 18-28% body fat. She’s healthy, being a boarderline female athlete—female athletes body fat range is 12-20%.
The Fat of the matter is...it’s not necessarily our weight that determines how fit we are. We need to know our body fat. Measure your body fat using one of the above methods at the beginning of each month. Track your progress and see if it changes and by how much. Start building an exercise plan around that. Rather than chewing the fat, let’s burn it.
See what Dr. Melina Jampolis says about other methods of measuring body fat.