The goal isn't to get rid of body fat completely. You need to have some fat on your body to live your best life.
The goal is to improve body composition. This means lowering the amount of body fat you have to healthy numbers while also increasing lean muscle mass.
When you do this, you achieve that slimmer, toned look that you might be after. It can also help increase your energy, improve your posture, make you feel more agile and just make you feel more generally better.
But before we jump into how to lower body fat percentage, let's take a look at how body fat affects your health and what a healthy body fat percentage looks like.
How Body Fat Affects Your Health
There are three main types of body fat:
Essential fat is the amount of body fat that's necessary for your survival. This type of fat provides insulation to help keep you warm, protects and cushions your organs and allows you to absorb certain vitamins.
Subcutaneous fat is the fat that lies directly underneath your skin's surface. When you talk about fat, this is the type you're probably thinking about. It's the fat that you can see and that jiggles when you move.
Visceral fat is a deep type of fat that surrounds your organs. You can't see visceral fat, but it's the most dangerous type of body fat because it's biologically active, which means it can produce hormones and other substances that affect your health. Visceral fat is connected to insulin resistance and metabolic diseases, and it can shorten your lifespan .
While subcutaneous fat may be your motivation behind wanting to lose some body fat, visceral fat is most concerning. The good news is when you lower your body fat percentage, you lose some of both types.
Keep in mind that while too much body fat is more of a widespread concern, having a really low body fat percentage comes with its own set of health problems, like:
Now that you know the health risks associated with having too much or too little body fat, the next question is, “What's a healthy body fat percentage?” You might even be wondering, “What should my body fat percentage be? Is there a magic number I should aim for?”
For starters, anything over 32% body fat for women and 25% body fat for men is classified as obesity, so you want to stay under those percentages as best you can .
Healthy body fat percentages are given in ranges. For women, a body fat level of 25-31% is considered acceptable. For men, it's 18-24%.
If you want to improve your body composition, you may want to aim for even lower numbers. Women who are physically fit typically have a body fat percentage of 21-24%, while men fall somewhere between 14-17%.
You don't want to go too low, though. Essential body fat is the minimum amount of body fat you need to stay healthy. For women, that's 10-13% and, for men, it's considerably lower at 2-5%. You should never go under this percentage .
Curious what kinds of nutrition and lifestyle habits are required to reach your desired level of leanness? Check out this article!
Body Fat Percentage vs. Body Mass Index
“BMI” (or, body mass index) is a concept that has been around for a while. Many people wonder if BMI is the same as body fat percentage. Before jumping into how to measure body fat, we need to quickly discuss the difference between body fat percentage and body mass index, or BMI.
Your body fat percentage is a measure of how much of your body weight exists in the form of fat.
Your body mass index is a way to figure out if you're at a healthy weight for your height. While some people say that you can determine whether or not you have too much body fat by calculating your BMI, it's not really an accurate measure of body fatness or even overall weight status.
Because BMI only uses your height and body weight, it can't effectively measure body composition. This is especially apparent for people who have a lot of muscle mass, like bodybuilders.
Bodybuilders may weigh more than other people who are the same height because they have more muscle and lean body mass, which is denser and can lead to higher numbers on the scale.
If you want an accurate picture of your percent body fat, you have to measure it directly.
To learn your body fat rate, you can get yourself a BodyPedia Smart Scale, which has been proved to be the first accurate smart scale to be used at home. More than 10,000 tests comparing with medical devices show BodyPedia Smart Scales have around 97% correlation to the Gold Standard method (DXA).
If you've gotten your body fat percentage tested and it's higher than you'd like to see, or you're just not feeling like yourself lately and you want to do something about it, the next step is figuring how to lower your actual fat levels.
It is important to keep in mind that this is just one piece of information. You can use it to assess whether or not the efforts you put into fat loss are working or if something needs to change or adjust. But, it isn’t the only measure of progress.
Just like the number on a scale is part of a bigger picture, your current body fat percentage is also just a number.
Connecting back to other factors like how you feel in the gym, increases in energy, food quality, changes in measurements and how your clothes fit are all other measures of progress to keep an eye on through your journey.
Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
We've talked before about the difference between general weight loss and fat loss, but here's a quick refresher.
When you start eating better and exercising, you generally start to lose weight. While a calorie deficit and aerobic, or cardio, exercise can help you shed some pounds, this weight may or may not be body fat. It could be muscle, water and even bone mass — or a combination of all of the above.
The key to improving your body composition is to burn more fat while building muscle at the same time. And there are some targeted ways you can do that.
High-intensity interval training for fat loss
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with slightly longer periods of low-intensity exercise.
The goal is to spend 20 to 90 seconds working as hard as you can to increase your heart rate and then backing off a little to allow for a quick recovery before you rinse and repeat.
Research shows that HIIT can increase your metabolic rate and reduce both subcutaneous fat and belly fat better than other types of exercise, including moderate-intensity training and aerobic exercise .
For optimal fat burning, try to do some HIIT workouts a few times per week. If you're new to the concept of HIIT, a personal trainer can show you the way.
Resistance training for fat loss
Along with high-intensity interval training, you'll also want to incorporate resistance training, aka strength training or weight training, regularly.
Resistance training can help improve your body composition by helping you build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
In one study, a group of overweight women was instructed to start resistance training, with resistance bands, three times per week. After a 12-week period, the women lost a significant amount of overall body fat and belly fat without any muscle loss .
When compared to other types of exercise, resistance training also has a higher excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, for short. This means that your metabolism may stay higher for longer after weightlifting, so you can burn more calories even after your workout is over .
When you gain muscle, it can increase your resting metabolic rate, or RMR, which means you burn more calories, even when you're not doing anything.
Hitting your macros consistently
You may have heard “you can’t outrun your fork” or that fitness is 20% exercise and 80% nutrition. Those percentages aren’t exact — they’re just part of the saying — but the point is that lowering body fat percentage requires a balance between exercise and food.
While regularly hitting the gym is an essential part of improving your body composition, spending an hour or two working out every day won’t offset constant hours of snacking and eating meals. Think about it, you spend 1-2/24 hours in the gym. The rest of that time you’re either sleeping or in an environment with tons of treats and temptations that are easy to grab.
If you want to accelerate fat loss, it’s important to hit your macros — or carbohydrates, protein and fat recommendations — consistently.
Macros are based on your caloric needs, so when you prioritize hitting them, you naturally stay on the right calorie diet for you. This will prevent you from taking in extra calories that can make it harder to burn fat.
Eating plenty of micronutrient-rich foods
One of the really great things about flexible dieting is that it’s, well, flexible. There’s a lot of room for you to eat all of your favorite foods while still staying within your macros.
But if you’ve noticed a stall in your progress or you just really want to dial it in, try to focus on including as many micronutrient-rich foods into your meal plan as possible.
In other words, choose foods with high amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants over foods that don’t have as much to offer in that department.
This will naturally lead you to choices like fruits, fiber-rich vegetables, lean proteins and slow-digesting carbs that keep you full and balance your blood sugar, while also helping to slim you down.
Managing your stress levels
It's not all about dieting and exercise, though. Your body composition also has a lot to do with your mental health and the way you handle stress.
When you're stressed out all the time, it increases the amount of cortisol in your blood. High cortisol levels can make you store more body fat, especially in the form of belly fat.
While it's impossible to get rid of stress completely, you can become more resilient to the effects of stress by regularly practicing things like yoga, meditation and deep breathing.
Learning how to say "no" and making sure you have a good work-life balance are also critical to healthy stress levels.
Getting enough sleep
Sleep plays an imperative role in weight maintenance. There have been several studies linking getting less than seven hours of sleep per night with a higher body fat percentage .
When you don’t get enough sleep, the resulting low energy causes you to move less through the day. This makes it much more tempting to skip your workout and your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) naturally decreases as well. This decreases overall calorie burn throughout your day.
Lack of sleep also triggers a spike in your stress hormone, cortisol. This triggers your body to conserve energy (aka, body fat). Your hunger and fullness hormones are also impacted. Your “I’m hungry” hormone, ghrelin increases and your “I’m full” hormone, leptin, decreases. This is a double-whammy when it comes to hunger. When you’re hungry, tired and stressed, this is a recipe for overeating and putting on weight . What can you do about it? Here are a few quick tips to help you increase your sleep quality:
Stick to a regular sleep schedule
Turn off electronics at least 30 minutes (preferably more!) before bed
Keep your room cool, dark and quiet
Get more sunshine