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What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage? And What Happens When You’re Too Lean?

Think of a really fit person. How do they look? Go-to answer: very good — but is it healthy? What's the risk of getting so lean? Find out here.

Fit blonde woman lying on the floor stretching and doing crunches in gym

Try this: picture a really fit person. What do they look like? Do they have:

🍫 Rock-hard, chocolate-bar-esque abs?
🦵 Visible striations on their thighs (or everywhere)?
✨ Muscles that look vacuum packed?

The fitness industry often markets these aesthetic characteristics as the “final destination” for anyone embarking on their fitness journey.

Follow this workout program, and you'll look like Chris Bumstead (or Alexia Clark — or [insert your choice of popular fitness influencer]). Buy these supplements, and you'll be one step closer to rivaling Zac Efron’s physique in Baywatch or Emily Blunt in the Edge of Tomorrow. (So on and so forth; you get the point.)

Hmm … will we, though?

And, arguably, more importantly, are these physiques even healthy?

Or are they simply too lean — and, thus, unrealistic and unsustainable? TBH, the answer isn't as straightforward as a yes or no. Learn more in this article.

What’s a healthy body fat percentage?

First, some context. What body fat percentage is considered “healthy”? According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), that depends on your biological sex:

  • Women: 14% to 31%
  • Men: 6% to 24%

As you can tell, that's a massive range. So, obviously, a woman with a body fat percentage of 14% will look more ripped than another coming in at 30%. From a medical standpoint (strictly coming from a body fat percentage POV), they're both healthy.

And that’s the crucial bit.

We're saying they're both healthy from a large-picture medical standpoint. But what if we zoomed in a little further and expanded the scope to the emotional well-being side of things?

The unspoken dangers of getting too lean

That’s where things start to change. Why?

Because the process that’ll help someone drop that initial 5% in body fat (e.g., from 30% to 25%) isn’t the same one that’ll help them lose the final 5% (e.g., from 19% to 14%) — the latter will take a lot more hard work than the former.

The lower you go in body fat percentage, the more you'll run into challenges with:

🍻 Social activities
You can’t just meet up with friends and “have a drink” whenever you wish because it’ll eat into your calorie budget.

Time availability
You’ll have to stick to a strict schedule of workouts, meal times, active recovery, and adequate sleep.

🥱 Energy levels
The leaner you go, the more fatigue you’ll have to deal with. This could negatively impact your performance in other aspects of your life, including academic pursuits (if you’re still studying) and career aspirations (you can’t impress your boss when all you want to do is sleep).

All these could do a number on your emotional well-being.

Plus, beyond that, while ~14% and 6% are technically "healthy" body fat percentages for women and men, respectively, the truth is that you may still run into the following health complications:

That said, “too lean” can be subjective

Hmm. Does that mean you should never strive to look like Zac Efron in Baywatch or Emily Blunt in the Edge of Tomorrow because of the too-low body fat percentage?

Of course not.

It’s your body, your choice. But, ultimately, what's truly important is that you carefully weigh the pros and cons of getting to a particular body fat percentage yourself.

Here are a few questions to consider:

👉 What is your ideal body fat percentage (note: don’t just go for the lowest body fat percentage possible)?
Even within the “healthy” body fat percentages, there are different classifications. Which would you prefer to fall into — the “Average”, “Fitness”, or “Athlete” group? (Suggestion: Google each classification to see what you could expect to look like at each tier.)

Women:

  • Average: 25% to 31%
  • Fitness: 21% to 24%
  • Athletes: 14% to 20%

Men:

  • Average: 18% to 24%
  • Fitness: 14% to 17%
  • Athletes: 6% to 13%

👉 What are you willing to do to get to — and maintain — your ideal body fat percentage?
If you're a man trying to get to 8% body fat, for instance, are you willing to track every calorie and gram of macronutrient you put into your mouth?

👉 If you're trying to get to a low body fat percentage: is there a legitimate reason for you to do so?
Once again, getting super lean requires a lot of sacrifices. Blood, sweat, and tears. While you could do so “just for the sake of it”, many times, maintaining a ripped physique year-round isn’t sustainable.

So, ask yourself if there’s a truly legitimate reason (e.g., a bodybuilding competition, a CrossFit meet, or a photoshoot) for you to push yourself through all that first.

For most people, building muscle is key

Here's something important to remember: Don't just fixate on losing fat when trying to achieve a ripped physique. Look at Christian Bale in The Machinist.

That’s an incredibly low body fat percentage — but does he look good?

Most people would say no, and describe his physique as “skeleton-like”, “gaunt”, “too skinny”, and potentially even “scary”. And understandably so.

What's the takeaway here, then? Well, for most people, if you're simply trying to look "fitter", you'll have to work on losing body fat and increasing muscle mass.

Depending on your specific fitness goals, pack on enough muscle mass, and you may even find out that you don't need an extremely low body fat percentage to achieve your dream physique.

Building your dream physique doesn’t have to be complicated with GymStreak

But wait. How can you build muscle? Answer: by following a well-designed resistance training program that manages to account for the following:

Okay, so, where can you get yourself such a well-designed resistance training program without forking out thousands of dollars (that you may not have) on:

  • Personal trainers OR
  • Generic workout plans that fail to provide any real value at all?

Stop wondering because there's GymStreak, the smart, AI-powered personal trainer app that'll tailor your workout sessions to your unique fitness goals and lifestyle needs.

See it in action below:

This Way To Tailored, Done-For-You Workout Plans

We'll guide you through it all — step-by-step. Just download the app, and you'll achieve your goal body fat percentage in no time.

References

Aladashvili-Chikvaidze, N., Kristesashvili, J., & Gegechkori, M. (2015). Types of reproductive disorders in underweight and overweight young females and correlations of respective hormonal changes with BMI. Iranian Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 13(3), 135–140.

Lorem, G. F., Schirmer, H., & Emaus, N. (2017). What is the impact of underweight on self-reported health trajectories and mortality rates: A cohort study. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 15, 191. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12955-017-0766-x

What are the guidelines for percentage of body fat loss? (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.acefitness.org/resources/everyone/blog/112/what-are-the-guidelines-for-percentage-of-body-fat-loss/