We recorded a podcast episode all about body fat percentage (episode 42) and it’s been one of our more popular episodes based on some 1:1 feedback.
Talking about body fat is not the most comfortable thing for most people because 1) it’s associated with negative feelings for many people, and 2) many people are hyper-focused on it when they could potentially get more value and health by focusing on other health-related factors and behaviors.
Types of Body Fat and Why it’s Needed
Fat stores in adipocytes (fat cells) are capable of extensive variation. That variation allows for changing requirements for growth, reproduction, aging, environment, physiological circumstances, availability of food, and physical activity. There are two major breakdowns of body fat:
#1 Essential fat
This kind of fat is necessary for health in many areas in our body including bone marrow, the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, kidneys, and nervous system function as well as the female reproductive system. In men, about 3% is essential, in women, around 12%.
#2 Storage fat
This is the energy reserve and it accumulates under skin and around internal organs to protect them from trauma – in a way, that protection can be viewed as essential, but it’s still categorized a little differently. This is also the kind of fat that can over-accumulate based on habits and other factors.
Breaking Down Body Fat Percentage
There have been some pretty low body fat percentage recommendations for “CrossFit athletes” across the internet, but what seems to be missing are the recommendations for realistic health for those CrossFit athletes who are just looking to be healthier. Those athletes who are looking to challenge themselves, to show up better, to have balanced hormone levels, to have energy to get through the day, to have energy to play with their kids and pets, to have energy to spend time with their partners, and to show up as more authentically themselves without being controlled by food and cravings and without having to get on and off diets over and over again. Not every woman needs to be, or even should be, at 18%. And not every man needs to be at 10%.
Textbook recommendations for health, taking both essential and storage fat (which is still necessary) into consideration, are:
Men: 10-25% Women: 18-30%
There are no hard set numbers, but within that range, there are ranges based on fitness levels…
*Average fitness – Men: 18-23% Women: 23-28%
*Athletic fitness – Men: 10-15% Women: 15-21%**
Professional and elite athletes, largely dependent on the sport and age (higher % every ~5years of age) – Men: 6-15% Women: 15-20%**
*You can still be a high level athlete, depending on skill and sport in these levels.
**at this level, a healthy menstrual cycle may be disrupted and depending on time spent there, damaged. For some women, even a body fat percentage of 18-19% can alter menstrual health.
Beyond 25% for men, and 32% body fat for women, we do begin to see that association with metabolic and health risks like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, etc. and begin to see overall wellness decreasing slightly for women around 28%. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone in and above this range will experience health conditions, but only that it places them at a correlated higher risk. People who are in “healthier” ranges can still experience those conditions.
Many people, without intense dieting, can reach a body fat percentage that is healthy for them with quality nutrition coaching – and it may be out of range of what is traditionally thought of as “healthy” just based off looks.
It’s 100% ok to aim to be in the athletic or professional/elite athlete ranges, but it’s important to remember that optimal health (physical and mental) doesn’t always improve with those changes. In CrossFit, there is also a balance of aiming for a body fat percentage that will support gymnastics movements, as desired, while still supporting heavy lifting. And remember, high levels athletes aren’t staying at peak body fat percentage year round beyond big competitions. Also, when aiming for those levels, you need to be real with yourself and look at the benefits and trade-offs that will happen to get there.
Health and action-focused behaviors tend to help people get further in their health-related goals than a weight-focused approach does.
Instead of focusing on a specific number on the scale, a healthier focus for most people would be to measure subjective and objective outcomes, like:
- Decreased stress
- Feeling better, healthier, stronger
- Decreased pain
- Better sleep
- Time improvements on benchmark WODs
- PRs on lifts
And placing focus on your effort of behavior-related goals that you have direct impact on:
- Creating and sticking to a bed time and/or bed-time routine
- Grocery shopping plans
- Meal prepping habits
- Specific healthy eating habits
- Decreasing stress by participating in specific activities as discussed with your coach
By paying attention to healthy behaviors, a personal healthy body fat percentage will follow.
What are some ways you like to focus on moving to a healthier you? Let us know in the comments!