Body Fat Percentage Needed for Athletic Performance

Control your calories and exercise regularly to look lean and beautiful.

Control your calories and exercise regularly to look lean and beautiful.

Although many women will tell you they want to get rid of flab, eliminating too much body fat -- which can happen in female athletes -- can cause health problems in women. A 2008 issue of “Today’s Dietitian” reports overly thin women have compromised immune systems and low muscle mass and are more prone to hair loss, decreased nutrient absorption, osteoporosis, anemia, amenorrhea and pregnancy complications. Keeping your body fat within a healthy range will boost your energy, maximize athletic performance and reduce unpleasant side effects of being underweight.

Minimum Requirements

Although society tends to portray skinny as being attractive, overly thin women can look dragged down, pale, sickly and have dry, thinning or brittle hair. Maintaining minimum body fat requirements will help your body function properly, optimize reproductive health and help you look and feel your best. Women should aim to maintain a minimum of 10 to 13 percent body fat, recommends the American Council on Exercise.

Ideal Body Fat

Women athletes are genetically designed to have more body fat than their male counterparts. The American Council on Exercise notes the ideal body fat percentage for women athletes is 14 to 20 percent. Maintaining this amount of body fat means you’ll optimize athletic performance, regardless of method of training. In contrast, male athletes benefit from maintaining 6 to 13 percent body fat, reports ACE.

Excess Body Fat

Although some body fat is beneficial for athletic performance, holding too much fat can drag you down during exercise. The University of Washington recommends women avoid having more than 21 percent body fat, although the average American woman has about 22 to 25 percent body fat. If you’re holding excess flab, try reducing your total calorie intake, boosting your dietary protein, increasing cardiovascular exercise and adding resistance training, such as weightlifting, to your workout routine.

Determine Body Fat

Several methods exist to help estimate your body fat percentage. Examples include underwater weighing, skinfold measurements and bioelectrical impedance analysis, or BIA. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports body mass index also measures your body fat, although this method may overestimate body fat in very muscular athletes. Calculate BMI by multiplying your weight in pounds by 703, dividing that number by your height in inches and dividing by your height in inches again. According to ACE, trainers at local gyms often use skinfold measurements – which only have a 3.5 percent error -- to assess body fat in women athletes.

 

About the Author

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in dietetics and has extensive experience working as a health writer and health educator. Her articles are published on various health, nutrition and fitness websites.

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