Body fat percentage is the amount of you that's fat. We all need some fat, but when your body fat percentage gets too high, you're putting yourself at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, arthritis, some forms of cancer, and diabetes.
By monitoring body fat percentage, you'll have a better idea if you're reducing -- or gaining-- fat or muscle.
Measuring Your Body Fat Percentage
A body fat monitor is a device you can use at home to measure your body fat percentage. It sends a small current of electricity through your body, then analyses how different tissues -- fat, lean tissue and fluid -- react to the current. These hand-held devices require you input your height, age and weight, then all you need to do is hold the device for a few seconds.
Or you can make it even easier by stepping on a body fat scale that calculates body composition along with total weight.
How to Use a Body Fat Scale
Body fat scales are easy to find and easy to use, just input your age, height, and gender, step on the scale and in a few seconds you'll have your readings.
Weigh yourself the same time of the day. Your weight can fluctuate throughout the day so choose a convenient time to step on the scale and always weigh yourself about the same time of day.
Weigh yourself under similar conditions. Weigh yourself with little or no clothing each time and when your body is at similar hydration levels. Your body fat scale may be less accurate if you have been sweating profusely or are dehydrated.
Check your body fat percentage weekly. There's no need to check your weight and body fat percentage more often, but some people like to check daily. That's fine, just remember that body weight fluctuates every day.
Set the scale on a hard floor. Placing the scale on carpet will give you inaccurate readings. Se the scale on a hard level surface.
Keep the scale clean. For the best measurement, your feet need to be bare, clean and in full contact with the electrodes on the scale.
Need Something More Accurate?
Body fat monitors and scales are easy to use and fairly accurate, but if you want something even more accurate, you need to see a health professional who mays use a set of calipers to pinch the fat folds on various parts of your body. These measurements, along with your height weight are used to determine your body fat percentage. You can buy body fat calipers to use at home, but you'll need help from another person.
Some health care providers offer DEXA, which stands for dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. DEXA machines can measure bone density as well as body fat percentage.
Hydrostatic weighing involves being dunked under water in a big tank and exhaling completely. Bod Pods are similar, but they measure displacement of air rather than water. These two methods are very accurate, but obliviously not something you can do at home.
What's a Good Percentage?
Two people who weigh the same can have completely different body shapes. A muscular person with a big body frame may weigh the same as someone with a smaller frame and a lot more fat.
According to the American Council on Exercise, the following chart shows whether or not your body fat percentage is in a healthy range:
Essential Fat: 2-5 percent
Athletes 6-13 percent
Fitness 14-17 percent
Acceptable 18-24 percent
Obesity greater than 25 percent
Essential Fat: 10-13 percent
Athletes 14-20 percent
Fitness 21-24 percent
Acceptable 25-31 percent
Obesity greater than 32 percent
Your body fat percentage is not the same as your Body Mass Index, which is a different measurement, and the charts are not the same, so don't confuse the two.
Additional Ways to Monitor Body CompositionYou'll get a clearer picture of your body composition if you use two or more types of measurements. A regular bathroom scale is all you need to weigh yourself, and you can use a tape measure to measure your waist and other body measurements. You can also combine your height and your weight to determine your Body Mass Index.
American Council on Exercise. "Percent Body Fat Calculator." Accessed May 5, 2010. http://www.acefitness.org/calculators/bodyfat-calculator.aspx
National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute. "Overweight and Obesity." Accessed may 5, 2010. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/obe/obe_whatare.html