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Do You Know Your Body Fat Percentage?

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Most of us know exactly how much we weigh—on the scale. But it’s just as important to know your body fat or body composition. Body composition is the percentage of a person’s body tissue that is fat.

Measuring body fat is important because being overweight is linked with increased risk of cancers (especially breast cancer), diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diseases. Body composition screening helps us to determine if someone is at risk for premature death from any of many causes.

Michele Kettles, MD, MSPH, Chief Medical Officer of Cooper Clinic shares more information about body fat percentages and different ways to measure body fat at Cooper Clinic.

Cooper Clinic offers two ways to measure body fat during comprehensive physical exams: calipers or Body Fat Densitometry (DEXA scan). Patients may choose which measurement they would rather perform, but a physician or clinical exercise physiologist might recommend a specific method depending on certain factors.

Calipers (Skinfold measurements)
Using calipers for body fat measurement has been done for many years. A physician or clinical exercise physiologist will pinch certain parts of skin on the body and will then put the measurements into a formula to determine body fat percentage. This form of measurement is the most popular among Cooper Clinic patients.

Operator error is a disadvantage of this type of measurement. If the professional pinching the skin with calipers has been trained incorrectly the measurements entered into the formula may be inaccurate.

Body Fat Densitometry (DEXA scan)
Not only does the DEXA machine perform a bone density screening, it can measure body fat too. The patient lies horizontally on the machine and stays still for the screening which lasts 5-10 minutes. The DEXA scan measures every fat cell in the body.

Radiation is minimal and the scan has a very low operator error. The DEXA scan is the most accurate and precise way to measure body fat. Dr. Kettles explains that the scan does take a focused look at abdominal (belly) fat, which, when too high, is an indicator of increased risk for heart disease.

A normal body composition percentage depends on gender and age among other factors. Here’s a breakdown of Cooper Clinic body fat norms using calipers and Body Fat Densitometry (DEXA scan):

Women % by calipers % by DEXA
Age 20-29 16-18% 27-29%
Age 30-39 18-20% 29-31%
Age 40-49 18-24% 29-35%
Age 50-59 21-27% 32-38%
Age 60+ 22-28% 33-39%


Men % by calipers % by DEXA
Age 20-29 9-13% 16-20%
Age 30-39 12-17% 19-24%
Age 40-49 15-19% 22-26%
Age 50-59 16-21% 23-28%
Age 60+ 16-21% 23-28%

In general men’s percentages are lower than women’s, and the DEXA percentages are higher than when taken with calipers. Dr. Kettles explains that women carry more fat than men, and men carry more water than women. Women’s percentages of body fat will usually be higher than men’s. Dr. Kettles also explains that the DEXA scan measures every fat cell in your body (including fat in the brain, bone marrow and other organs), therefore the percentage will always be higher with DEXA than with other measurements.

The next time you step on the bathroom scale, keep in mind that there are other ways to track weight loss or determine healthy weight. Ask your physician to measure your body fat during your next visit.

For more information about Cooper Clinic or to schedule a comprehensive physical exam click here or call 972.560.2667.