June 10th, 2018 • 7 min read
Last Updated: August 12th, 2018
Inspiration of the article:
You’ve long heard doctors talk about BMI — or body mass index — and you may even know yours off the top of your head, especially if you were told your number was in the unhealthy range.
Technically your BMI is used “as a good — though rough — indicator of how much fat mass you’re likely to have,” says Patrick M. O’Neil, PhD, director of the weight management center at the Medical University of South Carolina and a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
You can calculate your BMI by dividing your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared, then multiplying that number by 703. You can use this equation to get your number: [weight (lb) / height (in) / height (in)] x 703, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
An easier way of finding your BMI is to use the online calculator from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to see where you fall. Here’s where the BMI ranges fall:
While there’s a lot being said about how being overweight or obese is bad for health, it’s not the full picture. “If we were being more precise, we’d say excess body fat is bad for your health,” says Dr. O’Neil. Excess body fat, especially visceral fat (the kind that accumulates in the stomach area) is linked to higher blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol, all of which can affect your risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. BMI is only a correlation of that, since usually the higher the BMI number, the more fat you’re likely to be carrying around.
That said, BMI has its limitations for what it can and can’t tell you about your health and if you need to lose weight. As the CDC points out, age, sex, ethnicity, and muscle mass can skew BMI as it relates to body fat. For instance, if you’re extremely athletic and have a lot of muscle mass, your BMI may indicate that you’re obese when you’re actually fit. “With BMI, you can’t say that it offers conclusive proof that someone has excess body fat,” adds O’Neil.
With that said, if your BMI is in the higher range and your waist circumference also indicates you’re at risk for health problems (a woman’s should measure under 35 inches; for a man, less than 40 inches is ideal), your doctor may advise you to lose weight, which will likely lower your BMI.
Here are the science- and expert-backed steps that will help you find lasting results:
This should be done at your doctor’s office with someone who is weighing you and measuring your height. “If you ask most of us how much we weigh, we’ll report we weigh less than we do, and we’ll say we’re a little taller. That would lead to an underestimation,” says O’Neil.
Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can have substantial health benefits, according to the CDC. For some people, this means that your BMI still may be in the overweight range, and that may be okay.
“It’s unrealistic and unnecessary for everyone with a BMI of 30 or more to get to a BMI in the normal range. The health significance of BMI is not indicated by the number it is today, but is if today’s BMI is more or less than it was in the past,” says O’Neil. In other words, it’s all about if you’re making strides toward a better health future. Your goal should be to lose a modest amount of weight and then re-evaluate your progress.
Know where you stand today — and where you stood yesterday. Then give yourself a pat on the back. “Self-monitoring is really important when it comes to weight control,” says O’Neil.
He recommends recording your food or calorie intake for a few days to understand what your eating habits are truly like. “Many patients will come back and say, ‘I never knew how much I ate,’” he explains.
It may be the reality check you need to change your habits. Use whatever method you feel most comfortable with, whether that’s writing it in a journal or using an app on your smartphone.
Just like monitoring your food intake, you’ve got to know what your activity level is like, too. At the Weight Management Center at MUSC, everyone who joins the program gets a Fitbit Zip, which makes it easy to track and record your exercise and everyday movements. (Walking up the stairs counts!)
Once a week, get on the scale. Then, chart your weight (this is easy to do via an app, or you can DIY using a graph, like the one from MUSC.).
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If you know you need to start exercising more — and your activity log proves it — you’re going to want to exercise. That doesn’t mean you’re jumping into kickboxing or trying out CrossFit.
“I tell patients that you don’t get extra credit for doing the toughest exercise you can find,” says O’Neil. He suggests picking an activity you find fun or tolerable, such as walking your dog or hiking, and making that your regular workout.
It’s not enough to say that you’re going to start exercising “more.” Rather, plan it out.
Commit to walking for 20 minutes three times this week, and plan the days you’re going to do it and when. For instance: on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after work. And if something comes up, know that you can shorten it to 5 or 10 minutes — everything counts.
Related: 9 Best Morning Habits to Lose Weight
“First, establish the habit of doing an activity, then focus on the duration and intensity of it,” advises O’Neil.
When you want to lose weight, there’s no shortage of diet advice. What’s more, research shows that focusing on both diet and exercise is the best combination for successfully losing weight.
But because diets are so variable depending on the person — your coworker may swear by low-carb eating while that would make you miserable — research suggests that the quality of your food may matter more.
For instance, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that foods like potato chips, processed meats, red meat, and sugary beverages were associated with weight gain, while those like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and yogurt were associated with weight loss.
Even if the weight doesn’t seem like it’s coming off fast enough, stay the course. It’s only with consistent efforts to eat well, move more, and maintain other healthy habits that impact weight (like getting enough sleep) that the pounds come off permanently, research suggests. Researchers found that when weight jumped up and down — possibly because of inconsistent efforts — people were more likely to give up on their goals. Remember: You’ve got this.
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