Body Composition 101

Body composition: It’s why you go to the gym. Simply put, body composition is what you’re made of. Most measurements of body composition look at the distribution of fat versus lean tissue that’s on your body.

Why Does Body Composition Matter?

While many people want to lose fat, gain muscle and get that toned, sculpted look, body composition is more than that. It gauges your risk for health conditions, too.

Your body composition lets you know if you’re overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese means you may have excess body fat, a risk factor for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, sleeping issues and some cancers.

Why Can’t I Just Use the Bathroom Scale?

So, why not use the bathroom scale and be done with it? Well, you can’t establish your “healthy” weight range without taking into account a host of other factors, including height, frame size and even genetics. The science that helps us gauge your risk for chronic illness is based off of specific body composition measurements. To see how your health stacks up and if you’re at risk, you’ll want to capture those same numbers.

How Do I Measure Body Composition?

Your doctor might measure your height, weight and even your waist circumference at your annual checkup. But, you can take down your body composition from the comfort of your own home. The three measurements for body composition are:

  1. Body Mass Index (BMI)
  2. Waist Circumference
  3. Body Fat Percentage

BMI and waist circumference can be measured with a standard scale and tape measure. To measure body fat percentage, you’ll need a special smart scale. No smart scale? No problem! BMI and waist circumference will do just fine. Body fat percentage is a nice-to-have measurement.

1. Body Mass Index (BMI)

Body Mass Index (BMI) is the ratio of your weight to your height. Here’s the actual formula:

BMI = [Weight in Kilograms] / [Height in meters]2

BMI is an estimate of how much body fat you have, and for most people, it does a good job. Being above the normal BMI means you have a higher risk of getting a chronic illness. Here’s what your BMI means:

  • BMI below 18.5 → Underweight
  • BMI between 18.5-24.9 → Normal
  • BMI between 25.0-29.9 → Overweight
  • BMI at or over 30 → Obese

Keep in mind that BMI may overestimate body fat in professional athletes and bodybuilders. Also, it may underestimate body fat in older adults and those who have lost muscle.

2. Waist Circumference

Health risk is not just how much fat is on your body, it’s also about where fat is located on your body. Your waist circumference is a risk factor for chronic illness that is independent of BMI. The fat around your midsection is more likely to be harmful visceral fat (some call it “belly fat”) versus less harmful subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat surrounds the liver and it is metabolically active, releasing inflammatory substances and hormones that can negatively affect your other health numbers like cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

A large study tracking 44,000 participants found that women with waist sizes over 35 inches had two times the risk of dying from heart disease compared to women with trimmer waists.

Knowing both your BMI and waist circumference is ideal. It can be a bit tricky to measure waist circumference, so follow these three steps to get an accurate number:

  • Step 1: Feel for your hipbones.
  • Step 2: Place the tape measure just above the hipbones.
  • Step 3: Don’t suck in your gut! Relax, breathe out and take down your waist circumference.

Here are the desired ranges for waist circumference:

  • Male: Strive for a waist circumference at or below 40 inches.
  • Female: Strive for a waist circumference at or below 35 inches.

3. Body Fat Percentage

Body fat percentage is the percent of your body’s fat to fat-free mass (think: lean mass, such as skeletal muscles and organs). The higher this percentage, the more body fat you have. As we discussed before, this number is important because excess fat is linked to chronic illness. Here’s the caveat: It’s hard to easily and accurately measure body fat percentage.

The most common method  is to use a smart scale. Smart scales use “bioelectrical impedance analysis.” It’s a mouthful, but here’s what it means: A low electrical current is sent through your body to determine the ratio of fat versus lean mass. Sadly, it’s not super accurate because it’s influenced by many factors, including your hydration level, skin temperature and when you last ate.

Even so, if you own a smart scale, this number is a nice-to-have. Here’s a table to help you figure out where you fall:

Female Male
Essential Fat 10–13% 2–5%
Athletes 14–20% 6–13%
Fitness 21–24% 14–17%
Acceptable 25–31% 18–25%
Obesity >32% >25%

What if My Body Composition Is Too High? (+4 Tips)

If you fit squarely into the overweight or obese range, know that you’re not alone. Roughly two in three Americans are overweight and one in three are obese. While it is common, it should not be the norm. To bring down your BMI, waist circumference and body fat percentage, you need to lose weight.

We know. It’s easier said than done, but Zipongo is here to help! To move the needle on your health, you’ll want to make positive changes to your eating and exercise habits. Here are a few science-backed tips to get you started:

  1. Keep a fruit bowl near your desk. Keep yourself full on healthy foods like fruit. It’ll help you walk past the free breakroom donuts without FOMO. You get a sweet fix and plenty of fiber and important vitamins and minerals. Eating fruit is linked to a healthier BMI.
  2. Cut back on sugary beverages. Drinking too much soda, juice or sports drinks has been linked to weight gain and the chronic conditions we talked about in this article.
  3. Take the stairs whenever possible. Find pockets in your work day where you can sneak in exercise. It can be as simple as taking the stairs daily, biking to work instead of driving or having a walking meeting.
  4. Don’t shy away from strength activities. Even as you’re losing weight, you’ll want to preserve as much muscle as you can. Weight-bearing exercises can make a positive impact on your body composition numbers and help give you a leaner look.

Obviously, we can’t solve weight loss in just four tips, but you have to start somewhere! You can re-take your BMI, waist circumference and/or body fat percentage weekly for trends.

To learn more about other key health numbers, check out Blood Pressure 101 and Blood Sugar 101

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