A Weighty Issue – Heavy and Healthy?
By Melissa Conroy
Warmer weather is here, and the shorts and T-shirts are coming out, revealing what sweaters and long pants have been hiding all winter. With bathing suit season around the corner, you’ve probably taken a good look at yourself in the full-length mirror and vowed to try that new acai berry juice and mashed parsnip diet that is all the rage or to actually use that gym membership you got to fulfill a New Year’s resolution.
If vanity isn’t enough to make you throw out the Lucky Charms and potato chips, good health is a motivating factor to lose weight; we are constantly inundated with information about how being overweight can cause a host of medical problems such as diabetes, heart attack and cancer. A George Washington University report recently calculated the annual cost of being obese: $4,879 for a woman and $2,646 for a man, and much of that cost is health-related. Your doctor may have brought up your weight in a recent exam, gently or not-so-gently reminding you that staying slim and trim is important for good health.
Or is it? Now, it’s obvious that weighing 450 pounds will do a number on your health, but what about an extra 20 pounds? What if your BMI classifies you as overweight. Does that automatically mean you need to get the extra pounds off right now or your health will suffer?
The short answer is no. First of all, know that weight is a varied thing. Your 210-pound football-playing grandson may very well qualify as overweight, perhaps obese, even though he sports six-pack abs and runs seven miles a day. In contrast, your small-framed daughter may be developing an obvious jelly belly and flabby arms yet be deemed at a healthy weight according to her BMI score. As a number, weight gives us only a small picture of overall health.
Your total weight is a combination of many different substances in your body: bones, skin, hair, muscle, internal organs, even what you ate before you climbed reluctantly on the scale. While the common adage is “muscle weighs more than fat,” a pound of muscle weighs exactly as much as a pound of fat. Muscle, however, is much more dense than fat. Take a chunk of steak and a chunk of fat that are about the same size – the steak will be considerably heavier even though it occupies about the same amount of space as the fat. This is one reason why your quarterback grandson is quite heavy, yet has a trim waistline and rock-hard biceps.
You, on the other hand, may be rocking a potbelly or sporting a pair of saddlebags that jiggle with every step, causing you to cringe every time you step on the scale. But don’t despair, your overall lifestyle is a much better indication of health than your weight. Here are issues to address before vowing to go on yet another diet:
• Smoking. Lighting up is extremely bad for you, and nonsmokers are at a much lower risk for health problems than smokers. Also, don’t forget second-hand smoke. It is not unheard of for a nonsmoking spouse to be the one who ends up with lung cancer instead of his or her chain-smoking partner.
• Activity level. Exercise is vital for good health. Get a dog and take it for a brisk 30-minute walk every day. Try a yoga class. Go hiking with your grandkids. Staying active can help you keep your weight in check, but even more important, it helps you be healthy. Overall it is better to be a little heavyset and active than thin and sedentary.
• Cholesterol levels. If your HDL is less than 40 mg/dL, if your triglyceride levels are above 150 mg, or if your total cholesterol level is 200 mg/Dl or more, this is a clear warning sign. While being overweight tends to lead to higher cholesterol levels, packing some extra pounds doesn’t necessarily mean your cholesterol will spiral out of control. Get your blood tested to see what your levels are.
• Diet. Some skinny people can exist on a diet of ice cream and French fries and not gain a pound, but they are robbing themselves of cancer-fighting fiber and antioxidants. A healthy diet that is low in sugar and salt and full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy is important for living a long, healthy life.
• Family history. Families can be a source of both great joy and great aggravation, and genetic predispositions towards heart problems, joint issues and other health problems are part of the aggravation. Get to know your family background to better pinpoint what health problems you are prone to in order to better protect your health.
• Stress levels. Stress plays havoc on your body and can result in a maelstrom of health problems such as insomnia, heart disease, skin conditions and digestive problems. Keep your stress in check for better health.
• Quality of life. Simply put, ask yourself “Does my weight hold me back from living the life I want?” Sure, you may be less than thrilled about donning a bathing suit, but do you have the energy to do what you want to do? Can you walk up a flight of stairs without puffing or grumbling about aching knees? If you’re carrying around some extra weight, but it’s not slowing you down and you are living life to the fullest, then those surplus pounds are probably not a huge issue.
The bottom line is that all of us want to look good and stay healthy. Being slender is a good way to achieve both goals, but losing weight can be an enormously difficult task. Americans spend about $35 billion dollars a year on weight-loss products and services, but even the most cursory glance around the average shopping mall clearly demonstrates that we aren’t getting any skinnier as a nation. It is extremely easy to beat yourself up that you do not have the body you did when you were 20 and vow to do all sorts of stringent exercises and diets to beat your excess flesh out of existence.
However, give your body some credit. It’s gotten you to where you are today and is still gamely keeping you going. Along the way, it’s done a lot of difficult things: had babies, moved houses, worked hard, chased grandchildren, built bookshelves, been squashed and knocked around. After so many years of loyal service, it deserves some respect. Rather than perching on a scale peering anxiously at the dial, take a good look at your lifestyle and ask yourself if you are giving your body what it needs to function well. If your overall health is good, your diet is healthy and you have the energy to do what you want to do, then don’t be so worried about your weight. Just think of all the skinny people in wheelchairs or the hospital that would love to switch places with you.