Fact or Fiction: The Skinny on Female Body Fat Percentage

Fact or Fiction: The Skinny on Female Body Fat Percentage

Female body fat percentage can be mystifying.

Fat seems to melt off of guys but hold on to women’s bodies with a vengeance. What’s the deal?

As a personal trainer, I am here to remind you that curves are the genetic heritage of female biology. In fact, female fitness actively pushes against an evolutionary impulse to store body fat for reproduction and optimal functioning.

Truly elite female athletes and fitness models only reach their “ripped” status for events and shows, for a very good reason. The body fat percentage that creates that appearance is too low to maintain for optimal female functioning.

The average female athlete has a body fat percentage between 18% and 20%, and sometimes up to about 25%.

This range of leanness, which is typical of most actresses and other traditional beauty icons, is reasonable to maintain through a healthy but flexible eating habits, as well as a well-rounded training program.

By contrast, fitness models and competitive female body-builders dip down to a level between 10% and 17% through precise nutritional planning and a calculated training program. Under the best of circumstances, they lean out with a network of support – nutritionists, coaches, and personal trainers.

The problem is that most women stop menstruating below 12%-15%, but there are many less obvious, but more serious, effects of sub-optimal body fat percentage.

Consistently maintaining a super-lean (and I mean super lean, not “in shape”) physique impacts a woman’s skin, energy levels, bone density, and eventually cardiac health.

On the other hand, getting lean (as in 18%-25% body fat, on average) is a long-term proposition that can be sustained indefinitely.

Am I thin-shaming female models and top athletes? Definitely not.

I just want to give a reality check, as well as encouragement, to the thousands of women who struggle to define their fitness goals in light of an overwhelming amount of dubious fitspiration and misinformation. Getting ultra-lean (below 17%) is a difficult and potentially unhealthy process that, if undertaken at all, should be done in partnership with health care and fitness professionals.

Where does that leave the active woman with a job and a personal life who would like to feel and – let’s be honest – also look her best, against a backdrop of cultural messages about female beauty? Here are a few reminders about how body fat percentage works, why you should stop obsessing, and how to achieve your healthiest level of fitness:

Get off Instagram and other “fitspo”-saturated media. Carefully posed images create an impossible standard. Real women, even very athletic ones, jiggle when they run and have stomach rolls when they bend over. Female athletes and even the most svelte actresses are typically not as lean as the unrealistic ideal that fitspo creates.

All bellies roll.

Build the basics of exercise. Build a regular, repetitive weight-training program that incorporates pushing, pulling, and rotating with every large muscle group, as well as cardio several times a week. Consistency is more important than intensity, considering that most people generally overestimate how much they exercise. Stay away from fad exercises that are extremely high-intensity and don’t give you a chance to recover.

Do not diet. Dieting creates a sense of deprivation, tricks the body into storing more fat, and causes women to fail over time. Instead, learn to listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and focus on what you do eat instead of what you don’t eat. Small shifts create big changes for a lifetime. Dramatic changes, on the other hand, often end in self-sabotage.

Relax. Be patient. If you are already at a healthy body fat percentage (25%, for example), moving to a lower number in the healthy range is probably a 2-3 month goal. But you will succeed if you are consistent and balanced, especially if you use a proper strength training program that truly changes your physique and not just your weight.

Most importantly, ask yourself WHY you want to be so lean. If you find yourself obsessing about body image, lingering over fitspo imagery, and weighing yourself excessively, it’s time for some self-reflection. How do you think you’ll feel when your body fat percentage is lower? What do you think you will accomplish? How will your life be different?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be fit. As someone who has lost (and kept off) a significant amount of unhealthy weight and enjoy being leaner, I am personally aware that living at your optimal weight is priceless. However, the aesthetic motivation behind fitness needs to be kept in perspective with the wider joys and demands of a fully-lived life.

So while you’re applying yourself to your fitness goals, remember not to let your extra cellulite, imperfect arms, or waist size stop you from living life to the fullest.

Want support in crafting your ideal lifestyle and physique, with balance and enjoyment? Schedule a free call!

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