Weight Is Just a Number

Do you weigh yourself regularly?

And do you have a specific number in mind that you'd like to weigh?

Here's a thought: what if the above two questions were the wrong questions?

The truth is your simple body weight can be a misleading and dangerously one-dimensional number, especially if you over-focus on it.

Instead consider these six other metrics, each of which provide more value, more insight and more information about your health and fitness.

Your cholesterol numbers
Think of your cholesterol numbers as a measurement of your long term cardiovascular health. After all, you can be "thin" in the body weight sense yet still have dangerously high cholesterol. Be sure to have bloodwork done with your regularly scheduled physical and ask your doctor how to interpret the results. Most importantly, ask for your own copy of your blood records for your personal files, so you can keep track of your HDL, LDL and total cholesterol numbers and ratios over time.

Your blood pressure
Most people know that the magic number for blood pressure is 120/80. Readings higher than that can indicate risk of heart disease, stroke or other cardiovascular illness. And while being overweight generally correlates with higher than normal blood pressure, you can also be thin in the body weight sense and still have blood pressure issues.

Obviously, your doctor or health professional will check your blood pressure as part of a normal exam, but you can also own your own blood pressure cuffs for home use (we actually own two here at Casual Kitchen, one that's manual and one that's battery powered). Finally, you can check your blood pressure for free in many drugstores and supermarkets.

Your body fat content
Your body fat percentage is an extremely useful measure of fitness and health, and it can be measured with varying techniques (and with varying degrees of accuracy) at any gym, fitness center or community health clinic. Ask a trainer or a health aide to help you understand the results.

Your BMI
Your BMI is simply your body's height/weight ratio, and it is a simple way to assess your fitness and health. There are limits to what your BMI can tell you, but it is an excellent shorthand way to determine if your weight is appropriate for your height, and it's a considerably more useful number than your simple one-dimensional body weight. [Here's an easy BMI calculator.]

Your Endurance
There are plenty of skinny people out there who aren't fit. And likewise, there are plenty of heavy people capable of stunning feats of fitness (two words: Charles Barkley). Let me propose two more nuanced and complete measures of your health and fitness:

1) How fast can you walk (or run) a mile?
2) Can you complete a 10K walk or fun run?

If you can't do the first and can't comprehend doing the second, then you've just stumbled onto some critically important information about your fitness--information that's far more useful than your absolute weight rendered in numerical form.

Your strength
Don't fall into the stereotypical trap of thinking weights are only for 24-year-old musclebound meatheads. There are stacks of studies showing the health benefits of weight-bearing exercise for women and men of all ages.

Ironically, an increasingly common sighting in gyms these days isn't the musclebound meathead, it's the weightroom geek: a friendly person who, while working out, roams the weight room with a pen and notebook, keeping assiduous records of his or her exercises, weights and rep counts. Visit your local gym or YMCA and see if regular weight training can help you achieve your health and fitness goals. I'm betting it will.

Getting fitter and gaining weight
I'll conclude this post with a brief story. When she was in her late 20s, my wife Laura decided she wanted to play better-quality tennis, and she knew in order to do so she had to improve her cardiovascular fitness. So, she started running 2-3 miles three times a week. Within a few months, her body fat content dropped and she developed much better endurance.

But guess what else? She gained weight. Nearly 10 pounds, which is notable on someone 5 feet 2 and 3/4 inches tall (and don't you dare forget the 3/4!).

Once she stopped screaming and thought about it for a few minutes, Laura easily figured out what happened: her body composition had changed as she burned fat and replaced it with muscle. And muscle has about double the density of body fat. This explains how someone can get into shape, even far better shape, and yet gain some weight in the process.

Many people can get so over-focused on their weight that they miss the big picture: that by getting fitter, you add years to your life. Essentially, you buy more time above ground. Isn't that a far more meaningful goal than shooting for some arbitrary number on your bathroom scales?

Measure your body by what it can do. Don't fixate on body weight to the exclusion of all the other information your body offers you. Weight is just a number, and it's nearly useless without context.

Readers: what experiences can you share?

Related Posts:
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
What to Eat When You're Sick as a Dog
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
Eat Right to See Right: Foods for Better Eye Health

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Julia said...

I finally figured all this out a few years ago... when my doctor was poking around my stomach during a physical, checking my organs and she says, "Wow, you have a lot of muscle under that fat." I've learned to be comfortable with my weight because I do have low cholesterol, low blood-pressure and can run 3 miles on a regular basis. And I know I eat better than most.

Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

Great post! I'm forwarding this to my friends and family right now. Many of us drift to and from our fitness goals and it's easy to focus on our weight as the indicator of progress.

I especially like what you said about strength, as my lack of strength is a constant reminder of how badly I need to get in shape. It's humiliating to have difficulty lifting something heavy when other people just as heavy as me barely break a sweat.

Shane said...

While I appreciate your point about numbers/weight not correlating directly to health, I can't believe you're still promoting BMI as a useful measure of health. While BMI might--I stress might--be useful at a research level for categorization purposes, advising people to measure themselves against in a day-to-day context is absurd and potentially damaging.

kittiesx3 said...

I do not weigh myself; I'm in remission for an eating disorder (call it remission b/c IMO it will always lurk in the background but as long as I'm aware, I won't give it any opportunity rear it's oh so ugly head)--the scale is a major trigger for me. So I could maybe tell you within 10 pounds what I weigh but not with any more certainty than that.

I'm far more interested in how well I run, do yoga, Pilates etc than what the scale says. Oh and my clothes need to fit. I don't want to have to buy new ones because I've expanded :-)

So yes, my fitness level is FAR more important and moreover is better for me to focus on. I've been blessed (so far) with great genes regarding blood pressure and cholesterol. Here's hoping that genetic luck sticks with me in the second half of my life.

Melissa said...

This made me feel good today. I'm not happy with my weight number right now and I'm not about to magically be okay with it BUT... when I was on my vacation, I hiked a lot. A LOT. One day for 5.5 hours. One day, I literally walked up a mountain. It was hard, trust me, very hard, but I did it. I have to take some pride and comfort in that. And now that I'm back, I'm also exercising and eating right. So hopefully I will lose some of that fat that I don't like in the coming months. :)

Katie Mack said...

I was trying to preach this very point to a friend who chided me for literally throwing my scale in the garbage. I, like most people, tend to get caught up in the wrong kind of numbers. My jeans (in various sizes!) are a never-fail indicator of how well I am monitoring my weight.

chacha1 said...

I write on these topics all the time, so I am right there with ya. Weight is less important to me than SIZE. (I know I'm healthy at size 8, less so at 6 or 10.)

And ability is more important than either.

BMI is not absurd and not damaging. It's simply one of many different metrics, as Dan pointed out. And it is EASY, which is why many people rely on it. If it's the best you can do, then it's better to go by BMI than by other metrics that are harder to obtain.

Getting a true body-fat-percentage reading is difficult and expensive, a caliper test at the gym doesn't really cut it for most people. Cholesterol tests you can only get during a physical, and how many of us don't have insurance right now? Or our insurance covers the doctor's office visit but not lab work?

My personal faves are a full-length mirror and a tailor's tape measure. Those are cheap and easy for everyone, and body proportions don't lie. If your waist measurement is bigger than your hip measurement, you're overweight in the HEALTH sense, regardless of what your scale might say.

TrippyTexan said...

Thanks for posting this-- sometimes it's too easy to focus solely on that number on the scale, when really it's your fitness/health that matters. I think, as far as fat loss goes, the way one's clothes fit is a much better measure than the scale. Plus (as chacha1 already pointed out), WHERE you have your fat matters too. If a person is stick-thin except for an obvious beer gut, that is obviously not healthy, even if that person does actually weigh less than someone else who has "thunder thighs" but little waist fat.

JS said...

Not only do you buy more time above ground, but you buy better QUALITY time above ground. A fit elderly person is easily in better shape than the average American. I know 40 year-olds miserably stuck in chairs most of the time and people in their 70s still having fun. They have their health issues for sure, but they're not waiting to die.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the insightful comments so far. And it's nice to see that this post drew out thoughts from quite a few readers with great attitudes about their bodies.

A few reactions:

Shane: on the BMI, agreed that there are flaws with that measure. BMI certainly has some idiosyncrasies, however, I'm advocating using it in context with other measures of your fitness. No statistic is an island.

Julia, Melissa, Kx3, Matt, Katie, Chacha, Trippy and JS: clearly each of you are focusing on the right things and each of you has consciously chosen effective measures of your physical body that work best for you. Bravo.

PS: Julia: that has to be the best (worst?) backhanded compliment I've ever heard!


Sara said...

I think it's important that, when you say that muscle weighs more than fat, you specifically mention that that's in terms of volume. Basically, if you're not changing sizes but you're gaining weight (from working out), it's because of muscle gain and fat loss.

After all, a pound of fat weighs as much as a pound of muscle. A pound of muscle just takes up a lot less space.

Daniel said...

Thanks Sara. Yes, I could have been more clear. Muscle is more dense than fat.

Reminds me of a trick question from a reading class way back in elementary school: "which is heavier: a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?" Duh. :)


wosnes said...

If you shop at only one store or wear only one brand, size might be an indicator. If you shop at a wide variety of stores -- it pretty much means nothing. My neighbor is about 2" taller than me, but 50-ish pounds heavier. She's dieting and recently mentioned that she needed to buy new clothes -- in a size smaller than what I wear. As it is, her clothes would probably fall off me. We shop at different places. I also noticed this with my daughter.

Anonymous said...

i agreed with you.i did gained weight during workout period,but i realized that my body is getting toned and much fitter. i am sure this is bcse of the muscle gaining process.