In the London 2012 Olympics, American weightlifter Holley Mangold weighed in at 346 pounds and was publicly criticized for being fat. Several female Olympic athletes, such as British heptathlon competitor Jessica Ennis and Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, have weathered similar criticism and struck back at their critics, according to Belinda Goldsmith’s article, “Fat? We Are Fit. Get Over It, Say Women Athletes” on Reuters. For many female athletes, more dense muscle for better performance is more important than appearance.
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The Body Mass Index
The standard screening tool for body mass is known as the body mass index, which evaluates a female athlete’s height relative to her weight. To calculate BMI, the formula is: weight (lb.) / height (in.) squared times 703. For the average woman, a normal BMI ranges from 18.5 to 24.9, according to "Survey of Athletic Injuries for Exercise Science" by Linda Gazzillo Diaz. For an athlete, this tool can be highly inaccurate, if not misleading. Because BMI doesn’t differentiate between muscle and fat, a very muscular athlete may have a BMI of 30, which is considered obese.
Percentage of Body Fat
There are two main types of body fat: essential and storage. Found in bone marrow, organs and nerve tissue, essential fat helps your body to function properly. Storage fat provides a source of energy when you require more energy than you’ve consumed. For the average woman, essential fat comprises 12 percent of body mass, according to “Sport Nutrition” by Asker Jeukendrup and Michael Gleeson. Total body fat -- essential fat plus storage fat -- should range from 25 to 31 percent for the average woman. In comparison, a female athlete's body fat should generally range from 14 to 20 percent, according to Diaz.
Study on Collegiate Athletes
In a 2014 study published in the "Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research," researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied the impact of college athletics on the body composition of 200 Division I female athletes. These athletes were involved in one of five sports -- swimming, track, basketball, volleyball and soccer. Researchers used DXA technology to gauge body composition, and measured total mass, lean mass, height and body fat mass and percentage. The average body fat percentage of the study group was about 22 percent, or 8 percent lower than sedentary females at the university. However, the female athletes and their sedentary peers had the same average BMI.
Different Sports and Body Types
Depending on the sport, the body mass and body fat percentage of a female athlete can vary widely. While gymnasts and marathon runners need to be thin, they must have a high power-to-weight ratio, according to Jeukendrup and Gleeson. Bodybuilders build muscle mass and gain weight, but keep their body fat percentage to a minimum. As of yet, body fat percentages considered ideal for female athletes have not been established. However, Jeukendrup and Gleeson have put forth general ranges for a variety of sports. For example, the body fat percentage of female basketball players can range between 20 to 27 percent. In contrast, the body fat percentage of female triathletes can dip as low as 10 percent.