What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?


Man Measuring His Waist With a Tape Measure (CC)

Unfortunately there isn’t a definitive answer.  Everybody seems to have a different study that they base their numbers upon.  And some people can be healthy and fat!

The good news is that while none of the published “recommended body fat percentage ranges” match each other exactly, there is some overlap in the ranges.  Take a look at these “suggested” ranges, then do an honest self-evaluation, then set goals that are realistic and good for you!

As with any measure of fitness, these numbers are merely guides.  Listen to what your body is telling you.  Talk to your doctor and monitor your situation regularly.   I encourage you to get these books and read the accompanying information that goes with these charts.  If your local library doesn’t have them, they can request a copy of the book from another library through a process called Interlibrary Loan.  Or you can buy the books through Amazon (just click on the links below).

Now, let’s look at some numbers!

From The New Fit or Fat by Covert Bailey (ISBN: 0395585643)

Body Fat Percentages (underwater immersion testing)

Men Women
Fattest Bailey has tested
55% 68%
Average American 23% 32%
Healthy Normal:  Oriental 18% 25%
Healthy Normal: Caucasian 15% 22%
Healthy Normal: African American 12% 19%
Top athletes 3-12% 10-18%
Lowest Bailey has tested 1% 6%
* According to Bailey, there are racial differences in bone density.   The bones of African-Americans are heavier than those of Orientals, so they sink more easily in water.  To allow for these differences, healthy Oriental men and women should be 18% and 25%, respectively, and healthy African-American men and women should be 12% and 19%, respectively.


From Health and Fitness: Scientific Principles and Practical Applications,
by Robert Weinberg, et. al. (ISBN: 0930749006)

Suggested Ranges of Percent Body Fat
Male Female
Minimum Body fat 3% 12%
Range of Optimum Body fat 3% – 15% 12% – 25%
Reduce Body fat 15% – 20% 25% – 30%
Criteria for Obesity 20% and up 30% and up


From Getting Stronger: Weight Training for Sports"" by Bill Pearl (ISBN: 0936070382) and from Getting Back in Shape: 32 Workout Programs for Lifelong Fitness"" by Bob Anderson, et. al. (ISBN: 0936070412)

Body Fat

Male Female
General Population 14% – 18% 18% – 24%
Athletes 4% – 10% 10% – 14%


From The Fat News, a newsletter
for the employees of the US Department of Energy.Chart showing healthy body fat percentages -- US Dept of Energy Newletter

From The Coast Guard Weight and Body Fat Standards Program Manual

Coast Guard Ship

This manual is an amusing look how the English language is converted into something that looks like English but which, in fact, is a specialized and very obtuse relative of the English Language in which bureaucratic manuals and procedures are written.  Wow, talk about some obtuse wording!!!!

Nonetheless, there is a very good section on how to use a simple tape measure to determine your body fat.  It even has photos on how to do the measurements correctly.  Check it out.  It is section 2.3.2.  Yes, I said 2.3.2.  That’s part of the obtuse language that I was talking about in the a fore-mentioned and referenced paragraph which includes obtuse chapter numbering.  And since it is a  “Coast Guard” manual, remember that when they say “deck” they mean “the floor“.

Being the military, they want the men and women to be healthy.  So they have established some MAXIMUM allowed body fat percentages for their sailors.  After all, you can’t very well fight and defend the country if you are carrying around a load of blubber.  Even on the ocean.  (get it?  Blubber, whales, ocean, coast guard?)  LOL  Yeh, I know.  It was awful!

Moving on… Basically if you’re in the Coast Guard and you exceed these Maximums, then you are made to walk the plank.  Metaphorically speaking.  They take 189 pages to say “Stay fit.  Stay beneath these maximums.  Or else we’ll kick you out of the Coast Guard.”  I told you it was obtuse language!!!!  One HUNDRED AND EIGHTY NINE PAGES!  And I said it in sixteen words!  Sheesh!

Maximum Allowed Fat Percentage for Coast Guard personnel
determined using a “measuring tape” as outlined in the Manual
Chart showing healthy body fat percentages - US Coast Guard
Maximum Allowed Fat Percentage for Coast Guard personnel
determined by any other method (electrical impedance, calipers, etc) outlined in the Manual

Chart showing healthy body fat percentages -- US Coast Guard

From Gallagher, et al; Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sep 2000; 72: 694 – 701Chart showing healthy body fat percentages - Gallagher Article

Are you tired of numbers yet?…

I know I’m sick of them!  🙂

You’ve got a lot to choose from.   Do your homework.  Talk to your doctor and/or your coach and decide for yourself.  But listen to your body.  Don’t lock yourself into a specific number if the mirror and your own internal “how-do-you-feel-today-meter” is telling you something different!!!!

What I’m doing:

After looking over all the numbers and thinking back to when I was at my “fittest” I’ve decided that a good goal to be my ideal “healthy” weight is:

Body fat:  10 %
Weight:   190 lbs

1995 - What I look like at 185-190 lbs ©What I looked like at my fittestBack in the day, when I was cycling a lot I got down to around 10% body fat and I weighed 165 lbs.  But at that time lots of people actually asked me if I were “ill”.  Thinking back I confess that I did look kinda thin.  I felt great though!

That was back in the early 90’s.  I’m older now.  I think a more realistic goal is to be around 190.  If I meet that goal I should look something like the photo on the right.

UPDATE 12-16-2011: I had to redo my goals and as of 12-16-2011 my new goal is 194 lbs and 12% Body Fat.  Check out my post Setting Goals: You gotta do the math! Ugh! for a full explanation.

See ya on the dance floor!

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About TxCowboyDancer

Eight time Country Dance World Champion. I love to dance. In the middle of a journey, transforming myself from "unemployed and out-of-shape" to "in-shape and full time dance instructor, writer and graphic artist."

Posted on Sat, Aug 27, 2011, in Misc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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