21 Body Composition

Body composition is defined as the body’s relative amount of fat-free mass (FFM) and fat mass (FM) and is generally expressed as a percentage of total body weight. FFM includes bones, muscles, ligaments, body fluids and other organs, while FM is limited to fat tissue.

Body Weight versus Body Composition

Tracking weight can be helpful, but body composition measurements help separate a person’s actual weight from the weight that could be unhealthy. For example, an individual who weighs 200 pounds and has 8% body fat, such as an athlete, only carries around 16 pounds of FM. However, a 200-pound person who has a sedentary lifestyle and a body composition of 20%, carries 40 pounds of FM. Weight alone, in this case, does not distinguish between FFM and FM and would suggest both individuals have similar health. As body fat percentage increases, the potential for various diseases also increases significantly.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a wide array of diseases can be linked to excessive body fat including:

  • Type II Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cancer
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (Stroke)
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Metabolic Syndrome
  • Lung Disorders
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Asthma
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Gout
  • Gallbladder Disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Non-Alcohol Fatty Liver Disease
  • Dementia
  • Psychological Problems and Quality of Life
  • Kidney Disease
  • Pregnancy Problems

How Much Fat is Needed?

Fat storage in the body consists of two types of fat: essential and nonessential fat. Essential fat is the minimal amount of fat necessary for normal physiological function. For males and females, essential fat values are typically considered to be 3% and 12%, respectively. Fat above the minimal amount is referred to as non-essential fat. It is generally accepted that an overall range of 10-22% for men and 20-32% for women is considered satisfactory for good health. A body composition within the recommended range suggests a person has less risk of developing obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some cancers.

A woman’s essential fat range is naturally greater than a man’s because of fat deposits in breasts, uterus and sex-specific sites. In both males and females, non-essential fat reserves can be healthy, especially in providing substantial amounts of energy.

Excessive body fat is categorized by the terms overweight and obesity. These terms indicate health risks. Overweight is defined as the accumulation of non-essential body fat to the point that it adversely affects health. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the threshold for being characterized as overweight is having a body composition of FM greater than 32% and 19% for females and males, aged 20-39, respectively. Obesity is characterized by excessive accumulation of body fat and can be defined as a more serious degree of being overweight. Classifications of obesity begin at body composition of FM greater than 39% and 25% in females and males, aged 20-39, respectively.


It is important to note that body composition as one of the five components of fitness is influences by the other four components (cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility). The more we focus on the other four components (in addition to healthy nutrition) the more we can improve body composition.



Dawn Markell & Diane Peterson, Health and Fitness for Life. MHCC Library Press. Sept 4, 2019. https://mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe295

North Carolina State University Department of Health and Exercise Studies. Health and Exercise Wellbeing (8th.ed.). Plymouth, MI: Hayden McNeil.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Skiing and Snowboarding Copyright © by Dr. Renee Harrington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book