There are a few reasons why someone would want to measure their body fat, especially when BMI and body weight alone can be so misleading. Knowing your body composition can help you understand a bit more about your health and fitness, if that’s your goal.
There are a number of ways to measure body fat. There’s the scale, the measuring tape, the skinfold test. The list goes on. But which one is the best (and easiest) method? Is there a method that’s superior to another?
The answer? It depends! What works for one person could be a hassle for the next. When it comes down to it, the best way to measure body fat will mostly be based on your preferences. Simple, accurate, and, most importantly, accessible is the best route when choosing your own body fat measuring strategy. Just like our own bodies, measuring body fat is not one-size-fits-all.
Easy ways to measure body fat
Researchers have debated the ideal way to measure body fat for years — testing, comparing, and refining formulas all to determine the best approach. For most folks, however, it’ll likely come down to ease and availability. There’s no need to get super advanced with, say, hydrostatic measuring, if you can get the same intel from a measuring tape or body fat scale. But if your doc wants to try a method that’s unfamiliar or not listed here, follow their advice first.
It’s important to keep in mind that most body fat testing formulas are based on regression models. So, the further a subject is from an average height and weight, the less accurate their results will tend to be. This is because there are many variables that contribute to body composition, and not all of these factors can be taken into account using the methods below.
For example, someone who is really tall or really short might not be getting the same level of accuracy when compared to someone of average height. Researchers are looking into new ways to better gauge body fat composition.
However, despite this limitation, you can still get a general idea of what’s going on with your bod. Read on to learn how to measure body fat at home.
A tape measure is a classic (and the most affordable!) way to measure body fat. One method helps estimate body fat percentage by taking the circumference of certain areas of the body using a soft tape measure, and then plugging those numbers into a formula. What formula, and body parts, you measure will be dependent on your sex.
- Body parts: neck, waist, and hips
- Formula: 163.205 x log10(waist + hip – neck) = 97.684 x log10(height) – 78.387
- Body parts: neck and abdomen
- Formula: 86.010 x log10(abdomen – neck) – 70.041 x log10(height) + 36.76
A calculator can help with this. Here’s one from the U.S. Navy to get you started.
Do note, when measuring your own body, there’s definitely a margin of error. Some tips to make your readings as accurate as possible include taking the measurements several times to check your work, as well as ensuring the tape measure isn’t wrapped around you too tightly.
Fairly accurate and easy to use, the body fat scale is a quick and efficient option for measuring body fat. Some even have options for you to link up your readings to your smart phone or tablet.
These function using bioelectrical impedance analysis to estimate your total body fat percentage. Long story short: Body fat scales use sensors beneath your feet. These sensors send electrical impulses through your leg and across your pelvis when you step on the scale. During this time, the scale measures the amount of resistance from body fat. Then, bam: A body fat percentage is estimated.
Some fancier (read: spendier) scales also have hand sensors to allow for upper body scanning, and therefore more accurate readings on where the fat is stored. This can help if you’re a person who potentially carries more weight in their upper body or arms.
There are a number of factors that can affect your read on these types of scales, including:
- activity level
- where fat is stored within your body
- your current hydration status (being more hydrated can mean it reads as having less body fat and vice versa)
The downside to the body fat scale is that it can’t tell you exactly where your fat is stored, and the location of fat can matter in regard to health. Also, while these scales are pretty accurate, it’s key to keep in mind that the readings are only estimates.
The skinfold test uses calipers to measure several body parts to see how much fat is beneath the skin. The perk of this method is that it can locate exactly where fat is, too. The numbers are then plugged into any number of equations that estimate body fat using population averages. You can find calculators online to avoid math, because, well, math.
Consistency and experience are vital for the accuracy of this body fat measuring method. Even for pros, this can be a challenge. You’ll want to partake in a lot of practice to be sure your results are accurate. Or just default to a method with a lower margin of error to be on the safe side.
Every body fat measurement method has its drawbacks and perks. Whatever’s easiest for you to administer is the best route for you.
And if you really want to get more accurate results, head to your doctor for recommendations on more advanced, straight-out-of-sci-fi tools including:
- dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA)
- hydrodensitometry (measuring body fat while sitting in water)
- air displacement plethysmography (using an egg-shaped chamber to determine body density)
- MRI or CT scans
Whatever your reasoning behind seeking your own body fat percentage may be, keep in mind that there are many determinants of health beyond what can be measured. Focus on your physical as well as your mental wellness, and work with your doctor and other members of your healthcare team to optimize your health based on your needs.
In the end, health is not about measuring every little inch or taking stock of every single pound. It’s about how we feel on the inside, our quality of life, and so much more.