If you only use the scale, you may not truly know if you're at a healthy weight. The scale can't tell you the type of tissue it's weighing. Having too much fat -- even if you're thin or carry a normal weight in pounds -- will endanger your health.
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But a man doesn't have to look like a cover model for a fitness magazine to have a healthy body composition level. No official guideline for body fat levels exist, but staying within a certain range influences your health. How much fat you carry depends on your fitness level and diet.
Average Body Fat Percentage for Men
For men, body fat between 18 and 24 percent is considered average, reports the American Council on Exercise. Maintaining this level of body composition requires little additional work on your part. Most people can achieve this level by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for exercise. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise and two, total-body strength training sessions per week. Maintaining this body fat percentage should keep you healthy and energized, and you'll look healthy, but not especially lean or fit.
Lower Body Fat Levels
In men, a lower body fat of between 13 and 17 percent represents a solid fitness level. You can maintain this percentage fairly easily, and it can boost your health, reducing your risk for metabolic disturbances and heart disease. You may need to exercise more than the minimum recommended by the CDC, however, and focus on lifestyle choices such as limiting stress and getting a fair amount of sleep. Most men can maintain this level with a balanced diet that minimizes refined grains and sugar, while emphasizing lean protein, whole grains and vegetables.
Athletes tend to maintain a fat percentage between 6 and 13 percent. If you're in the higher end of this range -- 10 to 12 percent fat -- you'll have a fit appearance and -- once exercise and sensible eating become habitual, you'll be able to maintain these lifestyle choices fairly easily. Maintaining a body fat percentage from 6 to 9 percent is more challenging and requires specific training. You may have an obvious six-pack, but you'll work hard in the gym and in the kitchen to achieve it.
Essential Body Fat for Men
Attaining a body fat level that's below 6 percent is possible but quite challenging for men. You'll likely have spent a lot of time at the gym, lifting weights and performing carefully planned cardio. A meal plan with measured portions and specific macronutrient ratios eaten with timed precision throughout the day is also required. This is the level of body fat you might see in a body builder right before competition, but it is difficult to maintain this on a regular basis. Men's essential fat level is between 2 and 5 percent; dipping below this level can interfere with normal bodily function and nutrient absorption.
Men's Normal Body Fat vs. Women's
Men naturally have a higher ratio of lean mass to fat, compared to women. Women carry extra fat, often in the hips and thighs, which supports childbirth and breast feeding. A body-fat percentage of about 25 to 30 percent is normal for a woman, while still maintaining her health -- while for a man, this level denotes obesity. Women's essential fat is between 10 and 13 percent; a woman shouldn't drop below these levels, as doing so could cause serious health consequences such as nutritional deficiencies and the halt of menses.