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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What's A Healthy Body Fat? - You Will Be Surprised...

In your quest for fitness, you likely want to lose fat.  But what level of fat should you shoot for?  You may have seen charts that place you in a category, such as underfat, healthy, overfat and obese, based on your body fat levels.  But where do these categories come from, are they accurate, and what do they really mean?

As with anything that categorizes you in a general way, looking a bit closer does much good.  For instance, with the various body fat charts and guidelines you'll find, many interestingly enough site no sources while others give a vague reference to a book or journal article.  When looking at the body  fat charts from some of the organizations considered to be "authorities" you'll find one particular reference often sited.

What you discover when reading this study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is that the study was not designed to establish body fat norms but rather to explore possible ways of establishing body fat ranges.  In this case they attempted to link "healthy" BMI(Body Mass Index) numbers with predicted percentage body fat.  Using "healthy" BMI numbers is inherently flawed as BMI considers height and weight without regard to fat vs lean weight.  With that and some of the other characteristics of this study in mind it's safe to say one can hardly extrapolate body fat ranges with this single study of little over 1000 participants whose age tended to be in the 40-60 range on average and who were recruited via newspaper ads, flyers or referral for body weight evaluation(these aren't usually apparently healthy individuals).  The study itself, in discussion of its limitations states "the aim of this study was not to provide population ranges for body fatness".  Yet it's used as a reference for charts that people use to provide population ranges for body fatness.  Suffice to say there are no absolute standards for body fat and the ranges that are provided in most instances are quite wide and vague.

What's the bottom line on body fat then?

What's healthy and normal largely depends on what your situation and goals are.  For example, a wide receiver in football will perform better at a lower body fat percentage than a lineman in football.  However, most people will have better blood test and health numbers, whether they are an athlete or just someone wanting to feel better, look good and be healthy, with a markedly lower body fat than they currently have. 
For men that means sub 10% is ideal and for women sub 20%.  You may be scoffing and saying that's impossible and I say yes if you have a standard American diet and lifestyle that may be true.  But, if you fix your diet and lifestyle and work out properly you can get to these levels safely and don't let anyone tell you you can't.  It won't happen overnight, it will require hard work, but it can happen - that is if you are willing to go against the grain and take action.   

Visually where do you fit in?

Remember, we're genetically programmed to be's our modern lifestyle that has lead to the acceptance of high levels of body fat as normal.  Native humans were not fat...they also didn't sit at desks 10 hours a day and then plop on the couch for 4-5 more every night.  You have to make significant lifestyle changes to get to these healthier levels of body fat, many of which you may not be willing to make.  That's perfectly fine, just don't expect to have flat abs and a lean fit look when you have a lifestyle that involves eating whatever you want and working out a few hours a week.  It won't happen.  However, if you do what everyone else won't, you'll look like everyone else doesn't.

As an end note, all methods of body fat testing are just estimations that extrapolate fat percentage based on various methods, body water, density, skinfolds etc...and should be taken as such.  There is inherent error in each...and thus visual appearance is a much better guide.  This is true with other "health measurements" as well...for example your total cholesterol numbers have to change by more than 35 points in either direction to have statistical confidence that they have actually changed at all.  None of this gives you permission to totally dismiss your numbers to justify your preferred habits (if the body fat scale reads 35% you're still fat), but what it does say is don't place such fanatical emphasis on one test that you stress yourself trying to get to a certain number.  Take a look at the whole picture of your lifestyle, health and well being and you'll be much  better off in the long run.

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