Measurements of your body composition, or body fat levels, give you a more complete picture of your body's healthy weight than using a scale alone. Too much body fat, even if you're of normal weight for a 50-year-old woman, can put you at risk for diseases common to those who are overweight or obese, such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Optimal in terms of body fat is somewhat subjective, though. A 50-year-old woman who wants good health will seek out a different body-fat level than a 50-year-old woman competing in athletic events, such as running races or triathlons. Aging plays a role in your body fat percentage; in general, you'll carry more fat than a woman 30 years your junior.
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What Is Body Fat?
Body fat measures your ratio of fat tissue to lean mass, which consists of bone, muscle, organs and connective tissue. Women always have a greater amount of fat than men to support childbearing. This is true even as you approach menopause.
Women's fat storage actually increases with age, more so than it does in men. You'll also notice that where you store fat changes. In your younger years, more of it was found in your hips and thighs. As you reach menopause, fat tends to shift toward the upper body and belly. Your total weight on the scale may not change, but you may find your belly growing a little bigger. Body fat measurements don't always tell you where you're storing fat -- they just give you a rough idea of how much you're storing.
Aging and Women's Body Fat Levels
For every 10 years you age past 20, expect to naturally gain between 1 and 3 percent fat. So, when you read body fat charts, expect to fall in the higher end of the range presented.
For a woman, a healthy body fat is anywhere from 14 to 30 percent. If you carry more than 30 percent fat, you are subject to health risks. A 50-year-old female athlete may fall between 14 and 20 percent fat; a fit 50-year-old woman falls into the 21 to 24 percent range; and average women are in the 25 to 31 percent range. These ranges are set for all age groups by the American Council on Exercise, so remember that you might be in the higher end of each of them because of your 50 years.
Measuring Your Body Fat
The easiest way to measure body fat is with a body fat scale. When you stand on it, it sends an electrical current through your body to estimate the percentage of fat vs. lean mass. Many fitness centers have hand-held versions of this technology, too. The results can be iffy, though, as they depend largely on your hydration levels.
A fitness professional may also measure your body fat using calipers at various sites on your body, such as your triceps, upper thigh and waist. This method is more accurate but subject to user error.
The gold standard of body fat analysis includes underwater weighing and dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, which uses x-ray technology. Both of these are only available in a clinical setting and come with a fairly high price tag.
Changing Your Body Fat Percentage
You can safely aim for a loss of about 1 percent body fat per month. Lose body fat as you lose weight by creating a calorie deficit between what you consume and what you burn. A 250- to 500-calorie-per-day deficit will yield about 1/2 to 1 pound of loss per week. Keep your rate of loss relatively moderate when your focus is on body fat alone. Losing weight too fast will encourage your body to lose lean muscle mass as well as fat.
Strength training at least twice per week promotes fat loss in people of any age but is especially valuable as you get older. A 2010 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise determined that regular strength training helped post-menopausal women avoid weight gain and negative changes in their body compositions. Strength training helps offset the natural loss of muscle mass that occurs with age, too. Plan to work every major muscle group -- the hips, legs, chest, back, arms, shoulders and abdominals -- with at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions of a specific exercise. Start by using just your body weight, and as a series of 12 repetitions becomes doable, add weight and additional sets.
As you plan your meals, be sure to include adequate protein from lean sources, such as fish, skinless chicken, eggs, lean meats and whey protein powder, if needed. Go for about 20 grams at each of four sittings. You'll need this protein to augment your strength-training efforts and preserve lean muscle mass as you drop your body fat percentage.