When we hear the words “body fat” we are led to believe that all fat is equal and that all fats are bad for us. This isn’t the case, guys.
Our bodies store fat from the foods we eat, later looking at these fat stores for insulation, protection and of course – energy.
While we all want to be able to calculate body fat percentage and hit those low numbers, it’s important to understand that our bodies require a certain amount of fat to live and function.
Sadly, a glance in the mirror or stepping on scales won’t quite cut it. While someone that’s stacked with muscle may weigh the same amount as someone that’s obese, there’s a huge difference in body fat percentage between the two.
So, if you’re wondering how to calculate body fat percentage, keep going.
Start by measuring the circumference of your abdomen and neck. Be sure to measure the largest part of these areas. If you feel as though you’re getting a little tangled up trying to measure yourself, ask a friend or family member to help!
To calculate body fat percentage, do the following:
Abdomen value – neck measurement = Circumference value
Top tips: how to check body fat with a tape measure
- Keep the tape in close contact with your skin, but don’t compress the skin (aka, don’t try to squeeze that tape round for a smaller measurement!)
- Unsure if you’re getting the right measurement? Do each one twice and average them, recording to the nearest half inch
How accurate is a tape measure to calculate body fat?
While it may be one of the easiest ways to calculate body fat, taking measurements in this way isn’t always the most accurate. When measuring yourself, it’s easy to measure in the wrong place or jot down the wrong number.
Especially when we take into account elements such as any clothing, how tightly you measure and what you’ve eaten/how recently.
Calipers are a common method for calculating body fat percentage. Often referred to as the ‘skin-fold test’, all it takes is a small pinch to different parts of the body to help calculate body fat.
While there are several ways to measure body fat percentage, the most common method is the three-site approach which was developed in the 1980s. Plus, it’s the quickest to do!
Grab calipers online for around $7 and measure the following areas:
Try to stick to one side of your body for consistency. For example, measure the right side of your chest, abdominals and right thigh.
To calculate body fat using calipers, do the following:
- Grab a fold of skin and measure its thickness using the caliper’s measurement dial
- Mark the pinch site 1cm above this skinfold
- Take 2 to 3 measurements of each area and average them for the most accurate measurement
- Calculate body fat % by entering these measurements in a body fat calculator
Accuracy of calipers to calculate body fat
Much like the soft tape measure approach, there is also some error to potentially be made with calipers. When measured correctly, there is around a +/- 3% error rate.
To ensure you’re getting your measurements as accurately as possible, you can also carry out the seven-site method, which includes measuring the following:
- Suprailiac (measuring a diagonal fold at the crest of the hipbone)
- Midaxillary (taken below the middle of the armpit, same levels as the breast bone)
- Tricep (taken at the midway point on the back of the upper arm)
- Subscapular (taken just below the shoulder blade to the side of the spine)
In order to measure these areas accurately, we’d suggest getting a friend or personal trainer to take these measurements for you.
Body fat scales
As we already know by now, scales are usually our go-to to work out our body weight. However, some have the functionality to calculate body fat too.
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The chances are, you’ve come across body fat scales at the gym. These work by sending an electrical current up one leg and down the other, recording body fat according to the resistance it meets during this process.
Body fat scales then take your age, weight, height and gender into account to calculate body fat percentage.
So if you’re wondering how to measure body fat percentage, body fat scales are a great option to do just this.
How to measure body fat: Scales – Are they accurate?
While the process of calculating body fat percentage with this type of process sounds accurate, it is always as spot-on as we’d like. When measuring body fat % in this way, however, there are variables to take into account:
- When and what you ate last
- When you last exercised
- How hydrated you are
How to determine body fat percentage: Hydrostatic weight
If you’re wondering how to measure body fat and seeking the most accurate method around, hydrodensitometry could be a viable option.
This method, however, is not something you’re going to come across at the gym or be able to do at home! Hydrodensitometry involves sitting undressed in a chair that is submerged in water.
Your weight underwater is recorded as your body places a buoyant counterforce on the water. This weight is then used to calculate body fat percentage.
As we said, this is most certainly not a home or gym option and would require a specialist facility to undergo this method of calculating body fat percentage.
Body fat percentage calculator: BOD POD
Unsure how to measure body fat percentage? Since there is a range of variables in some methods of calculating your body fat percentage, here’s another incredibly accurate method to consider.
This technique – air displacement plethysmography – involves a computerized, egg-shaped chamber (also called a BOD POD) that smartly determines your body density through weight and volume, before using this to calculate body fat percentage.
While this option is extremely accurate, according to research, it also requires a special facility. The BOD POD method matches the accuracy of hydrodensitometry.
How to measure body fat: MRI or CT scans
This method of calculating body fat percentage could be considered the most accurate of them all when working out how to check body fat.
An MRI scan (Magnetic resonance imaging) and CT scan (computerized tomography) take cross-sectional images of your body, even measuring intra-abdominal fat. However, this is a very specific (and expensive!) route to calculate body fat, and are not commonly used for this purpose.
Ideal body fat percentage ranges
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, falling within these ranges for body fat percentage is considered “ideal”.
|Age||20 to 29||30 to 39||40 to 49||50 to 59||60+|
|Male||7 to 17%||12 to 21%||14 to 23%||16 to 24%||17 to 25%|
|Female||16 to 24%||17 to 25%||19 to 28%||22 to 31%||22 to 33%|
While you may be looking to hit those low body fat percentages, too little fat can cause you to feel fatigued – since your body may not have enough energy.
On the other end of the scale, too much body fat can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and hypertension.
BMI vs Body fat percentage
So, what’s the difference between your BMI (body mass index) and body fat percentage?
Your BMI doesn’t calculate body fat, but instead guide you as to whether you’re underweight, a healthy weight overweight or obese. While many of us simply like to know our BMI, it isn’t the most reliable indicator of how healthy we really are.
For example, an athlete may have a low body fat % but since muscle weighs more than fat, they could have a high BMI – since BMI doesn’t take other important factors into account.
If you’re wondering how to measure body fat percentage, we’ve given you plenty of ways here to get started!
While there are relatively simple methods to help you calculate body fat percentage, some of these options aren’t quite as accurate as you may hope. These methods range from easy-to-do at home to specialist (and expensive) options such as the BOD POD.
No matter what your BMI tells you or how you determine body fat percentage, here are our tips for maintaining a healthy weight:
- Ensure you get 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly (such as cycling, water aerobics or walking) or 75 minutes of intense exercise (running, playing sports, swimming laps) every week.
- Don’t forget to include strength training at least two days a week, whether it’s lifting weights or bodyweight workouts.
- Eat a healthy, varied diet, packed with whole foods, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Pay close attention to your portion sizes.
- Create an exercise and diet plan to help stick to your goals.
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