Share on Pinterest

No number is a complete picture of your individual health. How you treat your body and mind are often better indicators of your overall health and well-being.

However, we do live in a time where doctors and other experts need to use charts, data, and other measurements to create a standard definition of health. That’s why your doctor or healthcare provider will often chart your body mass index, or BMI, during routine physicals.

While BMI and other measurements such as body fat percentage do serve a purpose, it’s also important to remember that moving your body and making purposeful choices about the foods you eat also contribute to your overall health.

With that in mind, think of BMI and body fat percentage as just one way to assess and monitor your weight and overall body composition.

When it comes to measuring body fat percentage, some of the methods used are fairly expensive and not very accurate. These include:

  • dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA)
  • hydrostatic weighing
  • air displacement plethysmography (Bod Pod)
  • 3-D body scanners

Skinfold calipers

Most of us don’t have access to the methods listed above. That’s why using skinfold calipers for assessing body composition is so popular.

With this method, you can measure your own body fat or have a certified trainer or other trained professional take the measurements and calculate your body fat percentage.

Of the two options, having a trained professional handle the process will likely result in a more accurate result.

If you plan on using the skinfold method more than once to measure progress (and you should), try to have the same person take the measurements each time. This can increase the validity and reliability of the results.

Other methods

If seeking out a trainer or taking your own skinfold measurements isn’t an option, there are a few ways you can track your body fat at home.

Body circumference measurements and body fat scales that use bioelectrical impedance are both methods you can do on your own.

While not as accurate as skinfold measurements taken by a trained professional, these methods do have some merit and can be a helpful tool when tracking progress.

Since a BMI calculation is based solely on your height and weight, being female or male doesn’t factor into how that number is calculated. That said, there are differences between men and women when it comes to body fat percentage ranges.

Body fat percentages for women fall under a few different categories. Some charts will divide the percentages by categories, such as athletes and acceptable ranges, while others divide the ranges by age.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has a body fat chart that’s more like the adult BMI chart because it doesn’t factor in age and breaks it up in the following categories:

CategoryPercentage
Essential fat10-13%
Athletes14-20%
Fitness21-24%
Acceptable25-31%
Obesity>32%

For ideal body fat percentages based on age, Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital gives the following guidelines for a healthy body fat percentage for women:

AgePercentage
20-3921-32%
40-5923-33%
60-7924-35%

In general, men have a lower body fat to lean tissue ratio than women, which explains the differences in the ranges. Reproduction plays a role in the higher body fat percentages for women.

With that in mind, the ACE chart gives the following ranges for men:

CategoryPercentage
Essential fat2-5%
Athletes6-13%
Fitness14-17%
Acceptable18-24%
Obesity>25%

For ideal body fat percentages based on age, Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital gives the following guidelines for a healthy body fat percentage for men:

AgePercentage
20-39 8-19%
40-5911-21%
60-7913-24%

BMI is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height, according to the American Heart Association. More specifically, it’s your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters.

Many doctors use the results to help categorize your body weight as either:

  • underweight
  • normal or healthy weight
  • overweight
  • obese

Each of these categories then corresponds to the following BMI ranges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

CategoryBMI
Underweight18.5
Normal or healthy weight18.5-24.9
Overweight25-29.9
Obese30 and above

There are several BMI calculators online. Some do more than just calculate your BMI, which has its perks, but the most important thing is to make sure you’re using a calculator from a trusted source.

For example, this BMI calculator from the CDC is appropriate for adults 20 years and older.

If you’re under age 20, the CDC also has a BMI percentile calculator that’s appropriate for people ages 2 through 19.

If you think of BMI and body fat measurements as one tool you have available to help you track your progress, you may be less likely to get fixated on the results.

In other words, rather than being driven by reducing a particular number, you can be motivated to enhance your health by fueling your body with nourishing foods and taking steps to include some form of exercise into your daily routine.

Having this mindset can make it easier to understand and accept the issues and limitations that come with BMI and body fat percentages.

BMI limitations

When it comes to BMI, the fact that it doesn’t distinguish between lean muscle and fat mass often leads to confusion and frustration when discussing people who are very fit, but have a higher body weight.

For example, a muscular athlete may have a higher BMI because of extra lean mass and, consequently, could be categorized as overweight or obese.

Whereas someone with a lower weight and a much higher body fat to lean mass ratio could fall under the normal to healthy range.

Plus, BMI doesn’t account for gender, age, or ethnicity, so it may not be an equally valid test for all populations.

Body fat percentage limitations

Body fat percentages, on the other hand, also have issues and limitations. If you’re using the skinfold method, but not having the same skilled professional do the measurements each time, you may see varying results.

Along those same lines, even if the same person does the measurements each time, if they’re off by an inch or two in where they grab the skin, the results may not be reliable.

Tracking your body fat percentage is one way to measure progress when you’re trying to lose weight or gain lean muscle mass. But it isn’t the entire story of your overall health. Eating healthy and being active is where you need to focus your energy.

If you have any questions or concerns about your BMI or body fat percentage, consider talking with your doctor, a certified personal trainer, or registered dietitian. They can help you understand your individual results and work with you to design a plan that fits your needs.

How to find one

There are several ways to find a certified personal trainer or registered dietitian in your area. First, call around to the local gyms and ask about the credentials of their trainers. You want to look for trainers with certifications such as:

  • NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
  • ACE (American Council on Exercise)
  • ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
  • NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)

Bonus if they have a college degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or sports medicine. You can also locate trainers through the websites of the certifying bodies.

For example, ACE has a section on their website that allows you to search for trainers in your area.

If you want to work with a dietitian, the most important credential to look for after their name is RD, which stands for registered dietitian. Many RDs will also have several other credentials that indicate further training and expertise.

Similar to ACE, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a tool that allows you to search for a registered dietitian nutritionist.

BMI and body fat measurements are two methods you can use to assess your body weight and composition. While they can provide some useful baseline data, they shouldn’t be the main focus when it comes to improving your well-being.

Eating nourishing foods, staying hydrated, exercising, and caring for your mental and spiritual health all play a critical role in shaping your journey to better health.