Today is Fitness Friday! On Fridays, we seek to provide you with up-to-date conversations surrounding personal fitness and exercise routines, as well as techniques that we believe will boost your performance, inside the gym and out!
Today’s subject is body fat standards. Men’s and women’s body fat standards have long been a topic of debate and criticism in the fitness industry. While both genders are encouraged to maintain a healthy body fat percentage, the standards for what is considered healthy differ significantly between men and women. At a competitive level, these differences are often ignored, perpetuating an unhealthy image of what it means to look “fit”.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the optimal body fat percentage for men is between 6-17%, while for women it is between 16-24%. This difference is because women require a higher amount of body fat for reproductive purposes. It is necessary for the production of hormones such as estrogen, which play a key role in the menstrual cycle and fertility. Research has shown that female athletes with body fat percentages below 20% are at risk for menstrual cycle disturbances and impaired fertility (Barr et al., 2014).
This is because lower levels of body fat can disrupt the production of hormones necessary for reproductive function. In addition to its role in reproductive health, body fat also serves as an energy reserve for the body. It helps to regulate body temperature and protect internal organs. In women, body fat is distributed differently than in men, with more fat being stored in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. This distribution of fat is thought to have evolved as a way to support pregnancy and childbirth.
On the other hand, men require less body fat due to their higher levels of muscle mass and lower levels of estrogen. Men also have a higher metabolism, which means they can burn fat at a faster rate (ACE, 2021). As a result, men are generally able to maintain a lower body fat percentage without negative health consequences. At higher levels, however, body fat can increase the risk of several health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Despite these differences, men’s and women’s bodybuilding competition standards often prioritize extremely low levels of body fat for both genders. To achieve the lean, muscular appearance desired in these competitions, many competitors undergo extreme diets and training regimens that can be unhealthy and potentially harmful. This is especially true for women, who may face additional pressure to conform to unrealistic body standards (Barr et al., 2014).
These strict standards can lead to disordered eating and unhealthy weight loss practices, as well as potentially affecting reproductive health.
In recent years, “wellness” has been introduced as an aspect of female bodybuilding, landing the traditional competitive standard under fire. These divisions prioritize a “healthy” image, which for most, would display a moderately-lean, athletic physique. This is not the case, as wellness competitors frequently drop below 7% body fat. This division showcases competitors with more mass in the glute, hip, and thigh areas, yet outspokenly adheres to the traditional standard of leanness.
As was previously explained, it is NOT healthy for women to get this lean; a contradiction that IFBB Pro bodybuilder and competitive judge Greg Doucette explains has tainted the image of “wellness” in bodybuilding. He notes that the wellness division was created to bridge the gap between fitness and competitive bodybuilding for women.
Yet, emaciated faces and unrealistically lean bodies dominated the division at the 2022 Olympia. Doucette suggests that the judging criteria be changed to promote a more realistic image, particularly in assessing leanness. As was previously stated, women can sit healthily at 16-24% body fat, so altering the criteria would accurately reflect the “health” component of the wellness division.
Overall, it is important to recognize that men’s and women’s bodies have different needs and requirements when it comes to body fat percentage. While it is important to maintain a healthy level of body fat, it is also important to prioritize overall health and well-being over societal beauty standards. In pageantry, results should be expected to reflect a healthy transformation process; an expectation that has yet to be fulfilled. So, remember, an aesthetic physique is NOT always a healthy one. Until next time…
- American Council on Exercise. (2021). Ideal body fat percentage chart: How much fat should you have? Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/5960/ideal-body-fat-percentage-chart-how-much-fat-should-you
- Barr, S., Costello, M., Vukovich, M., Fasching, P., Krieger, J., & Westphal, K. (2014). Body composition in female athletes: Influence of sport, training, and energy availability. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 99(8), 2963-2968.
- Furnham, A., & Cheng, K. (2016). The psychology of physical attraction. Routledge.