Today I want to talk about something that should be important to all of us, yet from my experience, it’s viewed with outright suspicion or ignored altogether by many people. I’m referring to the Body Mass Index. The BMI is a means of determining fatness by calculating the ratio of one’s weight to height. While it doesn’t measure body fat percentage, it’s considered one of the best ways to quickly approximate one’s degree of body fatness. We should all know our BMI and take seriously the potential health risks that come with having a BMI of 25 or greater. While it’s not perfect, it’s a good place to start when assessing our health and fitness.
The BMI is a baseline from which one can measure their progress, and it’s also useful in determining potential risk factors. As I do orientations at the gym, I weigh the client and inform them of their BMI. Almost every time I’m asked questions that go something like this, “That’s not really realistic for me is it? Wouldn’t I be too skinny at that weight?” “That weight” is usually on the higher end of the scale for their height. I tell them while the BMI scale has its limitations and isn’t perfect, it can and should be considered realistic.
A quick note on the limitations of the BMI scale. It can overestimate fatness in athletes such as bodybuilders, football players, and wrestlers who weigh more due to increased muscle mass – these are not the people coming to me for a gym orientation. Too many people want to fool themselves into thinking that their extra weight is from muscle. If you haven’t been seriously hitting the weights, then your extra pounds are not from muscle weight! The other limitation of the BMI is that it can underestimate the fatness of elderly people or those who have lost muscle mass which is common with aging. If you want a more precise measurement of body fat, you can have a DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan or use hydrostatic weighing. Occasionally, we have a truck that comes to the gym and offers this service at an affordable price, and I highly recommend you take advantage of this if you get the chance. Knowledge is power.
Knowing our BMI can help us know if we’re on the right track or motivate us to move in a healthier direction. In case you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal about BMI it’s because obesity is considered the second leading cause of preventable death in America after smoking. It reduces life expectancy by 10 to 20 years. It’s related to the following health risks:
- High Blood Pressure
- Impaired Cardiac Function due to an increased workload on the heart
- Renal disease
- Deep-vein thrombosis
- Sleep apnea and pulmonary disease
- Degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, gout
- Problems with anesthesia during surgery
- Menstrual irregularities
- Endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon cancers
- High cholesterol
- Gallbladder disease
- Psychological distress because of discrimination & social stigma
As you can see from this list, excess weight puts a lot of stress and strain on the body in many different areas. You may be thinking, “I’m overweight, and I don’t have any of those conditions.” Just because you may not have any of these conditions now, that doesn’t mean you won’t develop them. The longer you carry extra weight, the more likely it is that you will develop one or more of these conditions. Yes, of course, people at a healthy weight can have these conditions as well, but your chances are higher when you are overweight or obese.
I’ve included a BMI chart below for you to see where you are. Wherever you are on the scale, it pays to adopt and/or continue healthy habits throughout your life. Those healthy habits will not only bring your BMI down, but they will also reduce your risks of all causes of mortality.
STEP ONE: Optimize your diet.
- Say NO to added sugars and fats in your diet – No processed foods, sodas, or fruit juices. “The fat you eat is the fat you wear.” Dr. John McDougall.
- Say YES to increasing your consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. As you do this, the healthy food will “crowd out” the unhealthy food.
- Say NO to products, pills, and potions that promise an easy solution to greater health and weight control. There are vast numbers of products on the market today that promise better health and/or weight loss. They tout studies (funded by their own companies, of course) that show phenomenal results. Please, please, please don’t fall for these. There have been snake oil salesmen since the beginning of time, and over time, they have gotten more and more savvy.
The bottom line is: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GOOD NUTRITION. There is no pill or combination of pills that can even come close to doing what whole, real plant food can do for your body. There are no short cuts. Don’t be duped.
STEP TWO: Design your environment for success.
- Say NO to snack dishes filled with candy or nuts.
- Say YES to having a bowl of fruit easily accessible as well as cut veggies in the fridge to snack on throughout the day.
- Say NO to keeping unhealthy snacks and high fat foods in your home.
- Say YES to clearing out ALL unhealthy foods and snacks. I’m not saying you can never have these things. Just make them harder to access. Make them truly a treat that you must go out for. If these types of foods are sitting around your house all the time, they are not a treat. They are the norm.
STEP THREE: Get moving.
- Say NO to sitting for long periods of time. Say goodbye to Netflix binges and hello to the podcast of your choice which you can listen to while taking a walk around the block, doing some chores around the house, or hitting the gym.
- Say YES to 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise each week. What kind of cardio is best? The kind you’ll do! Choose an activity you like. Don’t like any exercise? Then choose a person you like to be with that will exercise with you. Good company makes difficult things more bearable. For instance, I lead a walking group for an hour every Friday. We walk when it’s freezing cold, and we walk when it’s blazing hot, but once we get started, we don’t even think about the temperature or the effort because we enjoy each other’s company so much. In fact, we’re a little sad when the workout is over each week because we have so much fun visiting while we walk.
- If you have a desk job, say YES to walking around your office while you talk on the phone, and setting reminder alarms on your phone or computer to remind you to get up and move more.
- Say NO to the best parking spot or the quickest way to get from “here to there.” When running errands, make a habit of parking as far away from the door as you can. Furthermore, avoid elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks when you only need to go a few floors.
- Say YES to taking a short walk at lunch. Remember, the 30 minutes of exercise you need each day does not have to happen all at once. It can be cumulative, 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Do what it takes to fit it into your schedule.
I hope this post has you thinking more seriously about your BMI. If it’s 25 or higher (and you’re not a serious bodybuilder), I hope you will adopt some of the suggested strategies to bring it within healthy limits and lower your risk for serious health problems. Please don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by our environment. What I mean is that when we look around, overweight is the norm with almost 70% of our population being overweight or obese. Don’t be content because you look like everyone else. We aren’t used to seeing people of a healthy weight. That’s why when people see the BMI chart, they often balk at the weight range for their height. Again, the Body Mass Index isn’t perfect, but it’s a good place to start. Regardless of our weight, it will help all of us to optimize our diets, design our environments for success, and get moving and never stop. Have a great week!