Whether you're trying to lose weight or gain a few pounds, you need to change the way you eat and exercise. Then you need to keep track of the changes in your body composition to measure your progress. The most commonly used measurement is your total body weight.
What is body fat percentage? It's 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 your body fat percentage, you'll have a better idea if you're changing the amount of fat on your body, or the amount of muscle.
Bad Fat Ranges
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.
Measuring Your Body Fat Percentage
Devices that use bioimpedance (or bio-electrical impedance) send a very small current of electricity through your body to measure the amount of fat, lean tissue and fluid. You can use hand-held devices (compare prices) that require you input your height, age and weight, then simply hold the device for a few seconds until you have your reading. Or you can make it even easier by stepping on a body fat scale (compare prices) that weighs you and calculates your body composition.
Bioimpedance devices are easy to use and fairly accurate, however if you want something even more accurate, you may want to see a health professional who may use a set of calipers to pinch the fat folds on various parts of your body 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. You might also be interested in another form of body composition measurement called hydrostatic weighing that involves being dunked under water in a big tank and exhaling completely. These two methods are very accurate, but obliviously not something you can do at home.
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. To maximize the usefulness of your body fat scale, follow these tips:
Weigh yourself the same time of the day. Your weight can fluctuate during 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, which will make your body fat percentage appear to be higher.
Check your body fat percentage weekly. There's really no need to check your weight and body fat percentage more than once each week, however some people will check daily. That's fine too, just remember your body weight normally fluctuates every day and that can alter your readings.
Set the scale on a hard floor. Placing the scale on carpet will give you inaccurate readings. Your scale should set on a level hard 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.
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