You’ve been told time and time again not to let the scale be the judge of your progress, but yet that number–you know, the one that never seems to budge despite compliments from friends and your skinny jeans feeling more baggy–still gets in your head. If substantial stats are what you’re after, slide the scale aside and instead use body fat percentage as your guide.
What is Body Fat Percentage?
In basic terms, it’s the ratio of your total amount of body fat divided by your total body composition. In numbers, if you weigh 150 pounds with 20 percent body fat, that means 30 pounds of your mass is fat, and 120 pounds is everything else–organs, tissues, muscle, bones, etc. Determining the amount of body fat on your frame can be done using a few different methods, including calipers, measurement calculators, body scanning systems, and displacement tools.
It’s important to remember that despite the word carrying a negative connotation, fat is not always a bad thing–you need it to live. It’s really more the amount and type of fat that is most important.
There are two kinds of fat in your body: essential and storage. Essential fat is what is needed for your body to function, and storage fat helps provide energy to your body. Women tend to carry more essential fat than men thanks to hormones and baby making, with the average being around 10 to 12 percent. Your calculation can help you identify if you’re in a healthy range. While numbers vary from source to source, the American Council on Exercise uses the following averages for females:
Essential Fat: 10-12%
Obese: 32% +
Don’t Confuse Body Fat Percentage with BMI
If you’ve ever had a wellness check up, you may have heard the term “BMI” or body mass index. Body fat percentage and body mass index are both used as indicators of healthy and unhealthy bodyweights, but that’s where their similarities end.
The numbers generated by BMI, which is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by a person’s height, can be very misleading as there is no indication as to body mass composition. According to average BMI charts, it’s not uncommon for someone carrying a lot of muscle on her frame to be categorized as Obese, when in reality she may be carrying very little unhealthy body fat.
Body Fat Percentage and Your Goals
Now that you know how to calculate your body fat percentage and what it means regarding you total composition, it’s time to put the data to good use. While many people tend to approach body transformation with statements such as “I want to lose 30 pounds,” using your body fat percentage as the guide to what is healthy and right for your objective can be a better strategy.
For example, let’s say you’re 150 pounds in the “Acceptable” range with 26 percent, which means you have 39 pounds of fat and 111 pounds of lean body mass. Your goal is to have more of a “Fitness” physique, with a new body fat percentage of 19 percent, or 28.5 pounds of fat (a 10.5 pound loss of just fat). Assuming your lean body mass stays the same, your goal body weight would be around 137 pounds. Here’s what the calculation looks like:
111/(1-0.19) = 137 pounds
Had you instead decided to follow the scale method and aim for that blanket loss of 30lbs to get your body weight down to 120lbs, you could’ve been working toward resultsthat may not only be difficult to achieve but also potentially unhealthy for your activity level.
Progress Not Perfection
Armed with better data, your body goals may feel more in reach and less frustrating to achieve. Still, it’s important to remember that while body fat percentage may provide a more realistic view of your body’s makeup, it’s not an exact science. Avoid relying too heavily on the numbers to tell you how well you’re doing, and instead keep it simple with a combination of progress pictures, measurement tracking, what you see in the mirror, and how your clothing fits.
How do you measure progress? Share with others in the comments!