Decreasing your body fat percentage can help you look leaner, feel healthier and perform better in sports. As you lose excess storage fat and put on more muscle, your body fat percentage will gradually drop. How hard you'll need to work to reach your goal depends on how much fat you have to lose and how low you want your body fat level to be.
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Understanding Body Fat
Carrying too much fat puts you at risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For men, a healthy body fat percentage is between 11 and 22 percent; for women, it's between 22 and 33 percent. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts may have even lower levels, because of the demands of their sport and because of their desire to look exceptionally lean. No official guidelines for percentage of body fat exist, because body fat levels depend on genetics, age and gender. Fitness or health organizations publish ranges that may differ slightly from these, but those ranges will let you know if you're generally in the overweight range, the healthy range or the athletic range.
When setting goals for your body fat levels, keep in mind that men must carry from 2 to 5 percent essential fat to support optimal body function. Women have a slightly higher minimum requirement, of 10 to 13 percent of fat, to support pregnancy and childbirth.
Initiating Fat Loss
You'll start to burn fat stores when your calorie intake drops below what your body needs to maintain itself. Find an online calculator that will help you figure out your daily calorie needs, then subtract 500 to 1,000 calories from your original number. The new, lower calorie total will help you lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. At this rate, you can expect to lose about 1 percent of your body fat a month. If you want professional advice about your calorie needs, speak with a dietitian. Remember, don't reduce your calorie intake below 1,200 calories or you'll risk becoming nutritionally deficient and losing lean muscle mass.
Making simple changes -- such as avoiding soda, alcohol, sugary treats and processed snacks -- goes a long way toward helping you reduce your body fat. Add a daily walk or other cardiovascular exercise to burn even more calories.
In addition to cardio, try strength training. Engaging in two weight training sessions a week will build muscle mass on your frame to increase the amount of lean tissue you carry. Start with body weight exercises, such as squats and pushups, and as you feel stronger, add resistance from machines, free weights or resistance tubing. Each workout should include at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise for each major muscle group.
Decreasing Body Fat Percentage Further
When you're already at a healthy body fat level but want to become even leaner so your muscles look more defined and you feel fitter, make additional changes to your diet and exercise plan. For example, as a man, your goal might be to go from 18 percent body fat to around 14; as a woman, your goal might be to go from 28 body fat to about 22 percent.
Continue to maintain a calorie deficit and focus more diligently on portion sizes and on the types of foods you choose. At most meals, eat a palm-sized portion of lean protein that's baked, stir-fried or grilled, along with a small fistful of whole grains and a generous handful or two of watery, fibrous vegetables. Make your snacks consist of healthy whole foods such as low-fat yogurt or fruit. Limit restaurant visits to once or twice a week and make the healthiest choices you can. Keep your intake of treats, alcohol and sugary beverages to a minimum.
Plan to exercise most days for 30 to 45 minutes. Include higher intensity cardio, such as running and interval training, during which you alternate blocks of high-intensity work with short rest periods.
Increase your strength-training schedule to three or four days a week on non-consecutive days. Do three to six sets of eight to 12 repetitions of compound movements such as back squats, chest presses and deadlifts. Use resistance that feels quite heavy by the last couple of efforts.
Achieving "Athlete" Level Body Fat
Fitness models, exercise enthusiasts and athletes have body fat levels that range from 6 to 13 percent for men and 13 to 20 percent for women. These lower body fat levels may help you feel lighter out on the field, flex more impressively on stage and look exceptionally fit.
To achieve such low levels of body fat, you must adhere to strict dietary guidelines and strict exercise regimens. Workouts last 60 to 90 minutes on most days. You'll need to participate in interval training two to three times a week, and you'll need to lift heavy weights for three to six sessions a week. Likely, you'll do multiple exercises for each muscle group; for example, you'll do flyes, presses and pushups for the chest and rows, pull ups and pullovers for the back.
Plan your portions of carbohydrates, protein and fats carefully. At meals, eat 20 to 30 grams of protein with only 1/2 to 1 cup of whole grains or starchy vegetables, a teaspoon of healthy fat and an ample amount of leafy vegetables. Post-workout protein snacks are critical to help you become stronger and recover more quickly to enable you to hit the gym again the next day. Each snack should contain 20 grams of protein and some healthy carbohydrates. Examples of these snacks are whey protein mixed with milk and fresh fruit or one half of a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
Lifestyle Habits to Help You Lose Fat
Adequate rest and recovery is critical, regardless of how much body fat you aim to lose. Plan to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night, as sleep is the prime time to release the hormones responsible for muscle growth and repair. Good sleep habits also keep your hunger levels in check and maximize your daytime energy levels so your workouts can be spot on.
How you deal with stress -- whether the stress is from work deadlines, financial problems or family issues -- will influence your output of the hormone cortisol. Releasing excessive amounts of cortisol, which happen when you feel stressed and overwhelmed, makes you crave fatty, sugary foods so it becomes difficult to stick to your eating plan. Cortisol can also cause your body to hold on to extra pounds. To lose body fat, learn to deal with stress constructively such as by participating in calming activities like yoga, meditation or journaling.