So this post is about discussing the cornucopia of measures out there meant to indicate overall health, especially for those looking to lose weight or maintain a weight loss. There are many – and they are confusing! Lets start with the old school and move to the new.
The Scale. I used to weigh myself religiously. Every day. I wrote it down in a notebook and I had an igoogle widget (the google 15) that averaged those weights over a week to see if your overall trajectory was to gain or lose in comparison to your goal.
There is nothing like the high of hitting a new all-time low for body weight. In July of 2009 I weighed in lower than my 14 year old self – a low I’ve never been able to maintain. Though I can hangout at 5lbs about this weight quite easily – it was never enough to me and I felt like a failure.
That’s the problem: a scale can absolutely tell you you’re overweight, but when it comes to knowing when you’re the ‘right’ weight for you – Mr. Scale becomes your enemy. After a lot of scale caused self-hatred I made a big decision: no more scale slavedom. I never weigh myself anymore and I’m not alone in this.
Shay Sorrells (former Biggest Loser contestant who originally weighed 476 lbs) and Stephanie of Radical Hateloss – (originally 400+lbs) are now both dedicated Crossfitters and found scales unhelpful tools in maintaining their weight loss.
“The other thing is, people focus too much on the scale. I was 500 pounds. I will never be 100-and-something pounds. The fact that I can run five miles and finish CrossFit workouts faster than other people…I don’t care if I’m 250 or 350 [pounds]. It doesn’t matter. And so that’s why I stopped talking about my weight. I refuse to do it, and people get so mad at me for that. But I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not going to do it, because it doesn’t help anyone. It honestly doesn’t help anyone”
So right. Scales are useful tools, but we must recognise their limitations mostly because they can’t tell us where we should stop and when we’re OK. So let’s move on to another tool which I know we’ll all agree leaves a lot to be desired.
BMI or Body Mass Index. It’s a table of height and weight ratios meant to give us a spectrum of options regarding what a ‘healthy’ weight is depending your build etc. The biggest problem for crossfitters: muscle weighs a lot. I’ll leave the big critique of this to our ranting but loveable former coach, Phil Rolling.
I also personally think that the low spectrum of BMI is way too low – I’d love to see what I look like at 125 lbs (the lowest ‘healthy’ weight for my height), I’d probably be half dead.
Body Fat Percentage. A great tool but unfortunately not one you can necessarily do in your own home, and for this, accuracy is everything. Calipers are best for lowtech, though there is debate about punching it into a computer program vs keeping track of the pure mm total from key points on the body. The most accurate is some kind of submersion pool thingy and we can all agree that those machines where you grip the handles are probably rubbish.
General agreed principles for healthy body fat percentages differ, but there are some tables at the end of the article.
More new-fangled approaches: So lets pretend for a minute you’re Shay (I’m aware very few of us are Shay). You’ve got an amazing Grace time, you can run 5 miles but you weigh 200+ lbs. How can you know whether you’re fit-fat or just fat? A few options…
Waist-to-Hip Ratios: This is one of my favourite measurements (and not just because I have a great score!) as there is some great science that link W2H ratio with either great health outcomes and/or serious health risks (check it out here).
Basically fat stored around our waist is associated with much greater health risks than that stored away from our heart and vital organs (say in our thighs). W2H ratios show us an indication to what extent the fat you do have is stored in a low or high risk way.
Optimal health for women (and association intelligent children!) is linked to a ratio of 0.7 and for men its 0.9 (associated with lower rates of testicular and prostate cancer). Any higher than 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men and you’re looking at higher risks, friends.
Waist Circumference: This can be used in conjunction with BMI to add a bit more nuance to the tool. Those who have a BMI greater than 25 combined with a waist circumference greater than 40” (for men) and 35” (for women) are at increased risk for heart disease and type two diabetes.
I think this is useful as it can show your BMI-loving doctor that you are not, indeed, overweight if your BMI says otherwise – but not an ideal.
Blood Work: This can give you an indicator of your thyroid function, cholesterol, insulin levels etc – combined with body fat percentage and weight probably gives you the most accurate picture of your overall health. If you’re dead keen on knowing whats going on in your veins and arteries, keep your eyes out for Groupons offering ‘comprehensive medical assessments’ that will let you get this done on the cheap.
In the end – you need to go with what works for you mentally (no scale slavery! Occupy the Scale!) and what you have to hand. Its very possible that many of us will have a high(er) BMI and be in great shape – but this is also ample ‘excuse-fodder’ for the overweight amongst us not willing to admit it.
Its easy to say, yes I weigh a lot, but I do crossfit twice a week so I must be in great shape. Trust me – you can be fat and have a whole lot of muscle at the same time and I’d wager that unless you are recovering from 400+lb obesity, you can’t really rationalise why you should stay that way. So I’d advocate a nuanced understanding of health indicators along with a healthy dose of reality and complete intolerance of rationalisations.