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A person's total body fat percentage is the total weight of the person's fat divided by the person's weight. The resulting number reflects both essential fat and storage fat.

  • Essential fat is that amount of fat necessary for maintenance of life and reproductive functions. The percentage for women is greater than that for men, due to the demands of childbearing and other hormonal functions. Essential fat is 3–5% in men, and 8–12% in women[1].
  • Storage fat consists of fat accumulation in adipose tissue, part of which protects internal organs in the chest and abdomen. The minimum recommended total body fat percentage exceeds the essential fat percentage value reported above. A number of online tools are available for calculating estimated body fat percentage.

Arguably, body fat percentage is the superior gauge of an individual's fitness level, as it is the only body measurement which directly calculates the particular individual's body composition without regard to the individual's height or weight. The widely-used body mass index (BMI), on the other hand, simply makes blanket assumptions as to what every individual of a certain height should ideally weigh, regardless of the body composition which makes up that weight. The BMI gives particularly inaccurate information with regard to individuals with above-average lean muscle mass, classifying such individuals as "overweight" or "obese" despite the fact that their body fat percentage would indicate they are in excellent physical condition.



Different cultures value different body compositions differently at different times, and some are related to better health or improved athletic performance. Levels of body fat are epidemiologically dependent on gender and age.[2] Different authorities have developed different recommendations for ideal body fat percentages, such as these from the The American Council on Exercise:

Description Women Men
Essential fat 10–12% 2-4%
Athletes 14–20% 6–13%
Fitness 21–24% 14–17%
Acceptable 25–31% 18–26%
Overweight 32-41% 27-37%
Obese 42%+ 38%+

Essential fat means that level below which physical and physiological health would be negatively affected. Controversy exists as to whether falling in a particular category of these body fat percentages is better for one's health than any other, but there seem to be enhancements in athletic performance as one nears the ideal body fat percentage range for one's particular sport. The leanest athletes typically compete at levels of about 5–8% for men or 10–15% for women. Bodybuilders will often compete at ranges even lower than these levels. Certified personal trainers will suggest to male bodybuilders that they should aim for a body fat percentage between 2–4% by contest time, however it is unclear that such levels are ever actually attained and the means to assay it are as noted below lacking in principle as 5% is generally considered a physiological minimum for human males.

Measurement techniques

A living person's exact body fat percentage generally cannot be determined, but there are several techniques which can be used to estimate it accurately.


Near-infrared interactance

A beam of infra-red light is transmitted into the biceps. The light is reflected from the underlying muscle and absorbed by the fat. The method is safe, noninvasive, rapid and easy to use.[3]

Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry

Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA (formerly DEXA), is a newer method for estimating body fat percentage, and is commonly cited as the current gold standard for body composition testing.

Two different types of X-ray scans the body, one that detects all tissues and another that doesn't detect fat. A computer can subtract the second picture from the first one, giving only fat detection. The mass of this can be estimated by the grade of exposure.


There are several more complicated procedures that more accurately determine body fat percentage. Some, referred to as multicompartment models, can include DXA measurement of bone, plus independent measures of body water (using the dilution principle with isotopically labeled water) and body volume (either by water displacement or air plethysmography). Various other components may be independently measured, such as total body potassium.

In-vivo neutron activation can quantify all the elements of the body and use mathematical relations among the measured elements in the different components of the body (fat, water, protein, etc.) to develop simultaneous equations to estimate total body composition, including body fat. [4]

Body average density measurement

Prior to the adoption of DXA, the most accurate method of estimating body fat percentage was to measure that person's average density (total mass divided by total volume) and apply a formula to convert that to body fat percentage.[5]

Since fat tissue has a lower density than muscles and bones, it is possible to estimate the fat content. This estimate is distorted by the fact that muscles and bones have different densities: for a person with a more-than-average amount of bone mass, the estimate will be too low. However, this method gives highly reproducible results for individual persons (± 1%), unlike the methods discussed below, which can have an uncertainty up to ±10%. The body fat percentage is commonly calculated from one of two formulas:

  • Brozek formula: BF = (4.57/ρ − 4.142) × 100[6]
  • Siri formula is: BF = (4.95/ρ − 4.50) × 100[7]

Bioelectrical impedance analysis

The Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) method is a more affordable but less accurate way to estimate body fat percentage. The general principle behind BIA: two conductors are attached to a person's body and a small electrical current is sent through the body. The resistance between the conductors will provide a measure of body fat, since the resistance to electricity varies between adipose, muscular and skeletal tissue. Fat-free mass (muscles) is a good conductor as it contains a large amount of water (approximately 73%) and electrolytes, while fat is anhydrous and a poor conductor of electrical current. Factors that affect the accuracy and precision of this method include instrumentation, subject factors, technician skill, and the prediction equation formulated to estimate the Fat Free Mass. Criticism of this methodology is based on where the conductors are placed on the body; typically they are placed on the feet, with the current sent up one leg, across the abdomen and down the other leg. As technician error is minor, factors such as eating, drinking and exercising must be controlled since hydration level is an important source of error in determining the flow of the electrical current to estimate body fat. As men and women store fat differently around the abdomen and thigh region, the results can be less accurate as a measure of total body fat percentage. Another variable that can affect the amount of body fat this test measures is the amount of liquid an individual has consumed before the test. As electricity travels more easily through water, a person who has consumed a large amount of water before the test will measure as a lower body fat percentage. Less water will increase the percentage of body fat. Also reducing the reliability of this method is the variation between models of the BIA devices: for instance when comparing outputs from a Tanita scale to an Omron Body Logic handheld device the Tanita scale overestimated the percentage body fat in college-aged men by 40% and in college aged women by 55%.[8]. Bioelectrical impedance analysis is available in a laboratory, or for home use in the form of body fat scales and hand held body fat analyzers.

Anthropometric methods

There exist various anthropometric methods for estimating body fat. The term anthropometric refers to measurements made of various parameters of the human body, such as circumferences of various body parts or thicknesses of skinfolds. Most of these methods are based on a statistical model. Some measurements are selected, and are applied to a population sample. For each individual in the sample, the method's measurements are recorded, and that individual's body density is also recorded, being determined by, for instance, under-water weighing, in combination with a multi-compartment body density model. From this data, a formula relating the body measurements to density is developed.

Because most anthropomorphic formulas such as the Durnin-Womersley skinfold method[9], the Jackson-Pollock skinfold method, and the US Navy circumference method, actually estimate body density, not body fat percentage, the body fat percentage is obtained by applying a second formula, such as the Siri or Brozek described in the above section on density. Consequently, the body fat percentage calculated from skin folds or other anthropometric methods carries the cumulative error from the application of two separate statistical models.

These methods are therefore inferior to a direct measurement of body density and the application of just one formula to estimate body fat percentage. One way to regard these methods is that they trade accuracy for convenience, since it is much more convenient to take a few body measurements than to submerge individuals in water tanks.

The chief problem with all statistically derived formulas is that in order to be widely applicable, they must be based on a broad sample of individuals. Yet, that breadth makes them inherently inaccurate. The ideal statistical estimation method for an individual is based on a sample of similar individuals. For instance, a skinfold based body density formula developed from a sample of male collegiate rowers is likely to be much more accurate for estimating the body density of a male collegiate rower than a method developed using a sample of the general population, because the sample is narrowed down by age, sex, physical fitness level, type of sport, and lifestyle factors. On the other hand, such a formula is unsuitable for general use.

Skinfold methods

The skinfold estimation methods are based on a skinfold test, whereby a pinch of skin is precisely measured by calipers at several standardized points on the body to determine the subcutaneous fat layer thickness. These measurements are converted to an estimated body fat percentage by an equation. Some formulas require as few as three measurements, others as many as seven. The accuracy of these estimates is more dependent on a person's unique body fat distribution than on the number of sites measured. As well, it is of utmost importance to test in a precise location with a fixed pressure. Although it may not give an accurate reading of real body fat percentage, it is a reliable measure of body composition change over a period of time, provided the test is carried out by the same person with the same technique.

Skinfold-based body fat estimation is sensitive to the type of caliper used, and technique. This method also only measures one type of fat: subcutaneous adipose tissue (fat under the skin). Two individuals might have nearly identical measurements at all of the skin fold sites, yet differ greatly in their body fat levels due to differences in other body fat deposits such as visceral adipose tissue: fat in the abdominal cavity. Some models partially address this problem by including age as a variable in the statistics and the resulting formula. Older individuals are found to have a lower body density for the same skinfold measurements, which is assumed to signify a higher body fat percentage. However, older, highly athletic individuals might not fit this assumption, causing the formulas to underestimate their body density.

Height and circumference methods

There also exist formulas for estimating body fat percentage from an individual's weight and girth measurements. For example, the U.S. Navy Circumference method compares abdomen or waist and hips measurements to neck measurement and height and other sites claim to estimate one's body fat percentage by a conversion from the body mass index. In the U.S. Navy the method is known as the "rope and choke."

The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army also rely on the Height and Circumference method. For males, they measure the neck and waist just above the navel. Females are measured around the hips, waist, and neck. These measurements are compared to a height/weight chart with age factored in as well. This method is used because it is a cheap and convenient way to implement a body fat test throughout the entire Department of Defense.

Due to different body compositions, those with larger necks may artificially generate lower body fat percentage calculations than those with smaller necks.

From BMI

Body fat can be estimated from your Body mass index or BMI. There are a number of alternative formulae that relate body fat to BMI. Although these calculations are based on equations published in peer reviewed journals they are only an estimate and there will be variations around the results, as slightly over for obesity.

Note: The body mass index is calculated from an individual's weight divided by the square of the height. [10]

Body fat estimated from the body mass index from Deurenberg et al. The relationship between densitometrically-determined body fat percentage (BF%) and BMI, taking age and sex into account Internal and external cross-validation of the prediction formulas showed that they gave valid estimates of body fat in males and females at all ages. In obese subjects however, the prediction formulas slightly overestimated the BF%. The prediction error is comparable to the prediction error obtained with other methods of estimating BF%, such as skinfold thickness measurements or bioelectrical impedance. The formula for children was different aged younger, the relationship differed from that in adults, due to the height-related increase in BMI in children.[11]

Child Body Fat % = (1.51 x BMI) - (0.70 x Age) - (3.6 x gender) + 1.4

Adult Body Fat % = (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x Age) - (10.8 x gender) - 5.4

where male gender= 1, female=0.


  1. ^ Fit & Well: Core Concepts and Labs in Physical Fitness and Wellness, Body Composition Chapter 6, U. Michigan Exercise Physiology presentation.
  2. ^ The effect of sex, age and race on estimating percentage body fat from body mass index: The Heritage Family Study, June 2002, Volume 26, Number 6, Pages 789-796, International Journal of Obesity (2002)
  3. ^ A new approach for the estimation of body composition: infrared interactance, Joan M Conway, PhD, Karl H Norris, BS, and CE Bodwell, PhD, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  4. ^ Improved models for determination of body fat by in vivo neutron activation., Cohn SH, Vaswani AN, Yasumura S, Yuen K, Ellis KJ., Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Aug;40(2):255-9., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  5. ^ Sarría A, García-Llop1 LA, Moreno LA, Fleta J, Morellón MP, Bueno M (1998). Skinfold thickness measurements are better predictors of body fat percentage than body mass index in male Spanish children and adolescents. 52. pp. 573–576. PMID 9725657.  
  6. ^ Brožek J, Grande F, Anderson JT, Keys A (1963). "Densitometric analysis of body composition: revision of some quantitive assumptions". Ann N Y Acad Sci 101: 113–140. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1963.tb17079.x.  
  7. ^ Siri WE (1961). "Body composition from fluid spaces and density: Analysis of methods". in Brozek J, Henzchel A. Techniques for Measuring Body Composition. Washington: National Academy of Sciences. p. 224–244.  
  8. ^ Exercise physiology: Basis of Human Movement in Health and Disease, Second Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006
  9. ^ Durnin, J. V. G. A. (1974). "Body fat assessment from total body density and its estimation from skinfold thickness: measurements on 481 men and women aged 16–72 years". Br J Nutr 32: 77–97. doi:10.1079/BJN19740060.  
  10. ^ Body Fat and Body Mass Index, Bodyventures
  11. ^ BMI to body fat percentage formula, Body mass index as a measure of body fatness: age- and sex-specific prediction formulas, Authors: Deurenberg P, Weststrate JA, Seidell JC. Journal: Br J Nutr, Mar 1991;65(2):105-14

See also

External links

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