The discussion of body composition is part of every new client assessment. Inevitably during this discussion the client asks, “So, what SHOULD my body fat percentage be?”
It’s my nature to answer this question by saying the following:
“Well, that depends. Is your goal related to FITNESS? Are aesthetics important? Or is it about your HEALTH?”
Many factors comprise optimal health.
Your weight, body fat percentage, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, resting heart rate, HRV, sleep quality, stress, cardiovascular fitness, strength, mobility are but a few. The proper combination of these factors varies based on individual goals.
A few extreme examples will illustrate this point more effectively:
If you can deadlift 3x your bodyweight, but your fitness is such that you can’t efficiently climb a flight of stairs, you aren’t “healthy.”
You may fall within the range of an appropriate weight for your height; however, if you aren’t able to perform one solid pushup, I would argue your overall “health” is out of balance.
Lack of strength poses a risk to your health just like any other factor.
There are people who can attain extremely low body fat levels via drugs, disordered eating, or excessive exercise. Their blood work and other vital signs would also demonstrate that, despite this body fat percentage, they aren’t in “great health.”
So, back to answering the question, “What SHOULD my body fat percentage be?”
First and foremost, we want you to be healthy.
For men, from a health and longevity standpoint it’s recommended to maintain under 20% body fat percent and for women that number is 30%.
Check out this picture:
This graphic illustrates the chance of dying from anything based on your BMI. BMI is simply a ratio of height to weight so it has its flaws, nevertheless it works well as it relates to longevity studies.
When we view these graphs, the overall takeaway is that there is a healthy range for weight, and risk increases when you deviate too far from this range.
The body fat percentages I referenced above correspond to the BMI on that lowest point of the curve. This is where you’re at the lowest risk for morbidity/mortality. That’s goal number one.
It’s important to realize that almost anything below those numbers is now an aesthetic or athletic performance goal.
Sure, you might feel better in that dress, or that sport coat suddenly looks much better on you by getting below that point. But it’s not necessarily “healthier”, especially if any of the other risk factors mentioned above are askew. If you’re below those numbers but still have uncontrolled risk, I would suggest focusing on improving your nutrition and exercise regimen to modify those risks. If you’ve checked all of those boxes and are STILL unable to control these risks, then it may be time to consult with your primary care provider.
I’ll leave you with this. Improved body fat percentage is a great goal and often the reason most people begin working with me; but it’s important not to neglect your overall health to achieve this.
For those that skip ahead for the summary here ya go.
For general health men would be best served to stay under 20% body fat while women should aim for below 30%.
If we are talking about feeling like you look your best and optimize FITNESS potential, those numbers jump down to about 15% for men and about 20% for women.
Keep Moving Forward,