It was between 600 and 300BC that the Ancient Greeks began a systematic study of mathematics. It was prior to that, that we had a concept of measurement i.e. me can’t throw spear at antelope – too far. Me can’t carry antelope home – too heavy. Me can’t get antelope through cave door – too wide”. But once numeracy was created, we became obsessed with putting a number on everything. Time, distance, weight, temperature, noise, speed etc. Everything needed to be quantifiable, and body fat didn’t escape that need.
Once measured, we present body fat as a percentage, which is essentially a ratio of everything you have in your body classified into two categories – fat mass, and fat-free mass. There are numerous types of different fats in our body and the two main categories of stored fat are subcutaneous fat (which is surface fat that sits just under the skin – the visible fat), and visceral fat (which is the fat that sits around your organs). Visceral fat is the biggest health risk, but the good news is – it is also the easiest to lose.
There is a minimum amount of body fat that is required for our body to function. For men it is estimated to be around 3 – 5 % and it is estimated for women to be around 7- 10%. So if that’s minimum, what’s excessive? Because that varies amongst individuals it’s impossible to put a definitive number on this. But there also lies a problem, in that:
So why do so many coaches measure body fat? Well once someone’s approximate body fat percentage is known, that information can be used to help formulate dietary and exercise recommendations, it can be used to monitor changes in body growth, body development, and body composition, and it can be used to set goals and identify risks dependant on whether fat mass is potentially too high or too low.
The most common ways to measure body fat percentage that you will come across are:
What all of these methods have in common is that an equation is used to predict what your body fat percentage is likely to be, and they assume that everyone runs of the same equation. Unfortunately there is no one equation that can accurately determine body fat percentage for the whole population. There are individual variables within each person, and there are individual variables within each individual variable! No one equation can take all of these variables into consideration to determine body fat percentage exactly. So if you are having your body fat percentage calculated regularly, don’t take the figure as gospel. The human body isn’t a mathematical equation and it is more complex than a single defined measurement. Even lab results need to be interpreted in comparison to each value and not as independent, stand alone values.
However all goals need to be measureable in some way to ensure you are heading in the right direction with your progress. A good coach will not only take some form of measurement – whether that be scale weight, body fat percentage, girth measurements, and health markers such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability, but they will also interview you regularly on how you are feeling, how your health is progressing, and will make sure you are getting fitter and stronger in the process. They will also ensure that your measurements are relevant to your goal. If your goal is to sleep better, that should be your main measure. If your goal is to be able to run 5km, then fitness should be your main measure but if your goal is to look good naked, that’s when body fat percentage can be a good measure.
So what is IOPC’s stance on Body Fat Percentage?
Do we think it is necessary? Absolutely not.
Do we think some people become too fixated on the measurement and it ends up doing more harm than good? Absolutely.
So while it is a tool that can be used in the right instances for the right job, over the years we have found ourselves utilising body fat percentage less and less frequently.
We opt for circumference measurements for those who want body composition changes. And we opt for performance measures for those who want to get stronger, fitter, and faster. We also utilise health measurements with ALL of our clients, regardless of their goals.
It is important to remember to not let any one number define you and don’t take this number as an accurate measure of where you are. If you’re looking good and feeling good, your clothes are fitting better, you are performing well and are happy, then that means more than any calculated equation ever could.