Doctors and exercise experts agree that the percentage of body fat you carry around is more important than how much you weigh. (Additionally, muscle–which is “healthy” tissue–weighs more than fat, though it takes up less space.
So, the bathroom scale isn’t the best measure of your health and fitness.
A body composition test measures what percentage of your total weight is body fat. Everything else is lean body mass (muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, skin and organs).
How Much Body Fat is Too Much?
Of course, you do need some body fat, to help carry on normal body functions. For instance, fat helps protect your internal organs from injury. However, a high percentage of body fat can lead to heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Experts recommend men carry at least 5 percent body fat; women should carry at least 12 percent. But those are just bare minimums for maintaining health.
The recommended body fat level for most men is around 15 percent. For women (who have higher body fat levels) a 22 percent range is considered healthy. Generally speaking, the more fat you carry (above the recommended levels), the worse shape you’re in. Men usually carry their body fat in their abdomen; women carry fat in their arms and their thighs. And statistics show that Americans are increasingly carrying far too much fat.
In 1996, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that–between 1980 and 1991 an additional 8 percent of American population became over fat. By 2011 the percentage of over weight Americans has hit 68 percent. This means that 7 out of 10 Americans are now over weight or obese. The percentage of children that are over weight or obese is between 30 and 40 percent (depending on ethnicity and gender). According to the U.S. Surgeon General Office the over 300,000 people are dying every year as a result of being too fat. From diseases to heart attaches to actually choking to death. It is unhealthy to be fat.
The reasons given for these loses in “the battle of the bulge” are simple: the American people– adults and kids–are eating too much and not getting enough exercise. Fad diets are not helping, though Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year on trying to control their waistlines. Statistics show that as much as 95 percent of those people who go on a diet regain all their weight (meaning body fat) back, often times increasing their body fat levels.
If you are concerned about your percentage of body fat, or that or your children, you should seek the guidance of a physician in planning an exercise program and low-fat diet. Under no circumstances should you put children on a diet without the advice of a doctor.
How We Lose Muscle, and Gain Fat
One of the major problems for inactive adults is the fact that–without regular weightlifting (resistance training) of some kind–the muscles you were born with and develop through your active teens and twenties, will rapidly start to be replaced by fat.
As a general rule, inactive women and men start losing muscle at the rate of half a pound a year. This half-pound annual loss of muscle also sees about a pound and a half of fat gained each year. Scientific studies have shown it does not matter if you’re doing regular aerobics, or if you overall body weight remains the same, you will be losing muscle and gaining body fat as yo approach middle age.
By the time you reach 70, most people will have lost about 30 percent of their muscle, unless they have taken steps to prevent (or reverse) the atrophy of their muscles.
Resistance training is the only way to maintain and re-build muscle. For every pound of fat you replace with muscle, your body will burn about 50 extra calories a day, even when you are at rest. An additional benefit of weightlifting is the strengthening of bones (part of your lean body mass), which helps guard against osteoporosis.
Where to Get Tested
If you are interested in getting a body composition test, talk to your doctor, or someone at a sports clinic. They routinely measure clients’ body composition, using a variety of methods.
Many doctors and professionals often measure body fat by using hand-held calipers. A hydrostatic test entails submerging clients in a pool for “underwater weighing”. And Magnetic Resonance Imaging (an MRI) measures fat and muscle by taking X-ray like “pictures” of soft body tissues, muscle, and bone, rendering each of these in different tone, or colors.
The most sensible approach to reducing your percentage of body fat is do eat a healthful, low-fat diet, and to adopt a regular exercise program that includes building and maintaining your muscles.