Who Really Has Six Percent Body Fat Anyway?

Paul Ryan shouldn’t be ashamed of his body fat, it’s probably lower than the average male, but it’s definitely not six percent

Paul Ryan. Image: Greg Skidmore

We have really good data about body fat for athletes. Elite boxers average out at about 6.9 percent. The top marathoners come in at 6.4. Before big races, Tour de France cyclists get down to about 8 or 9 percent. Even college swimmers, like these guys, or these guys, come in at around 9.5 percent. The average man is between 17-24 percent, and the average woman slightly more. So when vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan’s campaign boasted that he had just six percent body fat, Slate investigated the claim.

Martin Rooney, a trainer for the NFL and MMA, told Slate that anyone with below 10 percent body fat looks, well, not like Paul Ryan. “A man with his shirt off is lean and shredded. Veins everywhere and really cut up. This is the model and bodybuilder look. So if he is saying he is 6 percent, he is shredded with a six-pack and should have no reason not to do photo shoots everywhere.”

Ryan likes to talk about his physical accomplishments, even though some of his boasts have turned into distractions on the campaign trail. But even if his body fat isn’t at six percent, it’s nothing he should be ashamed of. It’s probably lower than the average male, but there’s also the question of how the Ryan campaign even knows that number. Slate writes:

Body fat is fairly tricky to measure. The standard tape-measure-and-caliper methods, which measure the thickness of skinfolds at various body sites, can vary by as much as 6 percentage points, says Gary Hunter, a professor of physiology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Underwater weighing (which is exactly what it sounds like) and DXA scans (dual X-ray images that discern fat from other tissue) are more accurate, and also more expensive and complicated.

And do we even want a guy with six percent body fat in the White House? Maintaining that level of fitness is a full time job. And Hunter says it probably isn’t conducive to helping run a country. “It’s hard to sustain,” Hunter told Slate. “Physiologically, you aren’t going to be functioning real well. Your strength levels will probably go down, you will feel fatigued, and your hormone levels will be disturbed.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Olympic Bodies Have Changed Over Time
The Swimsuit Series, Part 5: Olympic Athletes, Posing

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