The ACSM Guidelines for Testing and Prescription, 9th edition offers tables with body fat percentage norms and classifications according to age and gender. This resource notes that there is not yet agreement on whether a specific body fat percentage is associated with an optimal level of health risk — but that a fat percentage range of 10-22% for men and 20-32% for women “has long been considered satisfactory for health.”
Many factors affect optimal health and longevity, not the least of which is cardiovascular fitness. In fact, studies show that cardiovascular fitness has a greater influence on morbidity and mortality regardless of body composition.
• One study found unfit lean men had double the risk of all-cause mortality of fit, lean men — even aafter controlling for factors like age, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and family history of heart disease. These unfit, lean men also had a higher risk of dying from heart disease and from all causes of death than the men who were fit but obese.
• Another study examined exercise capacity (cardiovascular fitness) and body composition as predictors of mortality in people with diabetes. Results showed a strong inverse association between fitness level and mortality risk in this population, independent of body composition; the more fit subjects had a reduced risk of death no matter what their body fat percent.
These studies illustrate how body fat percent alone isn’t a great predictor of health and longevity; lifestyle behaviors are a big factor in determining level of risk.
In looking at my recent Bod Pod report, I see that for females, a range of 18-22% is categorized as Lean and described as lower body fat levels than many people . This range is generally excellent for health and longevity. The report cites the following references: Based on information from the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, Exercise Physiology (4th Ed.) by McArdle, Katch, Katch, and various scientific and epidemiological studies.
To classify body fat percentages, fitness professionals rely on resources similar to what the Bod Pod report describes. For example, the ACE Personal Training Manual, 4th edition contains a table describing general body fat percentage categories. To compare it with the Bod Pod rating above, the manual places a fat percent of 21-24% in the Fitness category and a range of 14-20% in the Athletes category. These classifications are comparable to the Bod Pod rating.