According to the experts, the average American adult is overweight. But what does it really mean to be overweight? Traditionally, doctors have established “normal weight” and “overweight” values based on health statistics. For men or women of a given height, the normal range is defined by the body weight values associated with a normal risk for lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Body weight values above the threshold where the risk for these diseases makes a sudden jump are classified as overweight (or obese).
Limitations with Body Weight
Since these standards were first formulated, some experts (and everyday men and women) have objected that body weight is only a moderately accurate indicator of health, and that the large number of exceptions to the rule suggests a better metric ought to be used. A growing number of experts believe that body weight (relative to height) is much less important than body composition (the percentage of your body weight that consists of fat) and the amount of body fat that is stored in the abdominal area.
Numerous recent studies have shown that a high body fat percentage and especially high levels of abdominal fat are much better predictors of lifestyle diseases than pure body weight. In other words, a person who is heavy but muscular is probably healthier than someone who weighs the same but has a higher body fat percentage. Likewise, given two people who share the same height, weight, and body fat percentage, the person whose body fat is distributed fairly evenly around his or her body will probably live longer than the person who carries most of his or her excess fat around the middle.
Most of us are stuck in a body weight mindset. Yet the evidence clearly shows that we should be thinking less about how much we weigh and more about how much of our weight is fat and how much of our fat is stored in the abdominal area. Therefore, stepping on a standard bathroom scale is not the best way to monitoring the form of your body. Two alternatives are preferable: measuring your waist-to-hip ratio and measuring your body fat percentage.
The waist-to-hip ratio is a measurement that compares the circumference of your belly area to that of your hips. It provides a pretty good indication of how much abdominal fat you’re storing. If the circumference of your belly is roughly equal to or greater than that of your hips, you’re storing too much abdominal fat. It’s very easy to figure out. Using a measuring tape, measure the circumference of your waist at belly button level and of your hips at the level of your hipbones. Now divide the first number by the second. For example, if your waist measures 36 inches and your hips measure 34.5 inches, your waist-to-hip ratio is 1.04.
For women, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.80 or less is considered healthy. For men, ratios under 0.93 are considered healthy. In one study, men with a waist-to-hip ratio above this threshold were found to have a 2.4 times greater risk of stroke than those below it.
If your ratio is significantly above the healthy level for your gender, set a goal of lowering it and continue to measure it every few weeks to track your progress. But don’t presume that achieving this exact number is an absolute must. It’s just a general benchmark that is easier for some people to reach than it is for others. For example, if you happen to have a big butt, it’s easier!
How to Measure Body Composition
There are several ways to measure your body fat percentage. Some of them require professional assistance, but recently a couple of simple and inexpensive at-home ways to measure body fat percentage have become available.
At-home caliper testing: For the convenience of being able to measure your own body fat at home whenever you want, consider buying your own skinfold calipers. You can now by quality calipers for self-testing for $50. While price and convenience are the clear advantages of this choice, inconsistent results can be a problem unless you take certain precautions.
Body fat scales and analyzers: Body fat scales such as those made by Tanita and body fat analyzers such as those made by Omron use bioelectrical impedance to estimate your body fat percentage. These devices are as easy to use as stepping on a regular scale and cost about the same ($60-$100). They provide a very consistent level of accuracy, which is crucial for tracking your progress.
So, what should your body fat percentage be?
According to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, men under 39 years of age should have 8-19% body fat, and women under 39 years of age should have 21-32%. Older men may range from 11% to 24%, and older women may range from 23% to 35%.
These broad ranges represent the span that’s associated with normal disease risk. For optimal athletic performance you should aim to be near the bottom of these ranges.