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German emergency services had to use a crane to lift an overweight woman out of her home in the western city of Bottrop Photo: ACTION PRESS / REX FEATURES

Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away. I’m not talking about orgasms here.  I’m talking about the other “O” word — the one that people don’t want to hear.  Obesity.  It costs Americans billions in dollars every year, yet we don’t to talk about it because it feels too judging.   

Somehow, we’ve come to think that the term obese refers to the guy on TV getting lifted out of his couch with a crane.  He is obese, or more correctly, he’s in a weight category labeled “super obese,” which refers to people with a Body Mass Index of 50+.   If you’ve ever heard the term “morbidly obese,” that refers to people with a BMI between 40 and 50.  Go figure – ‘morbid’ sounds worse than ‘super’ to me, but I’m apparently mistaken on that….

WHAT IS BMI?

“BMI” stands for Body Mass Index.  It’s literally a table of height vs weight, with every match up receiving a BMI score number.  The guy getting lifted out of his couch by a crane has a high score; the anorexic down the block has a super-low score.  Most of us fit somewhere in the middle. In my opinion, we all need to keep an eye on just where we fit in that middle-range BMI, because it affects how healthy we’ll be over the span of a lifetime.  If you’re feeling gutsy, you can check your BMI number here.   

Reality check #1:  plain old everyday “obese” refers to a BMI of 30-39.9.  For someone 5-feet tall, that’s 153lbs.  At 5-foot 6 inches, the obese-level starts at 186lbs and at 6-foot tall it begins at 209lbs. 

BMI table

photo credit: Journal of the American Medical Association

WHAT THOSE CATEGORIES MEAN

Reality check #2:  this isn’t a conspiracy theory.  The government doesn’t make up labels like “over weight,” “obese,” or “morbidly obese” to make people feel bad. The labels exist to put things into perspective. Each category is actually based on a statistical model that estimates your risk level for diseases like: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some types of cancer.  Each time your weight tips you into a higher level category — such as from “overweight” to “obesity class 1” — your risk level for disease has jumped higher.

Ahhhh, now having a label for a weight category doesn’t feel so mean-spirited, does it?  Take a look at some of the numbers:

BMI health risks table

photo credit: Journal of the American Medical Association

Let me boil some of those statistics down for you.  Remember the 5-foot tall person weighing 153 lbs?  If that’s a man, he’s 5x more likely to have diabetes than a ‘normal weight’ person.  He’s twice as likely to have coronary heart disease, high blood pressure or arthritis.  If this is a woman, she is twice as likely to have diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure or arthritis.  Bump into the next level of obesity and the risk levels keep increasing. 

THE COSTS OF OBESITY

The yearly cost of managing obesity in the United States is close to $100 billion. That’s $52 billion in direct health care costs, plus $33 billion in weight-loss products and services, plus $3.9 billion in lost productivity.  Not to mention to loss in quality of life – the baseball games and nature hikes missed, the days spent in doctor’s offices or sitting on a couch because something hurts.

IS BMI A PERFECT MEASURE OF HEALTH?

Reality check #3: there is no perfect measure of whether you’ll be healthy for the span of your lifetime.  The BMI scale was created to give health professionals a simple ‘rule of thumb,’ something that could be quickly determined and also used in large-scale groups.  Some nay-sayers will point out that there are always exceptions to any rule.  

 I’ll use myself as an example of BMI quirkiness.  Deep breath here.  My BMI is 23.5.  That’s on the high end of normal and although many people would say that I have an “athletic build,” I’m definitely not a large-framed woman.  Athletes carry more muscle and muscle weighs more than fat, so you probably wouldn’t guess that at 5 foot-8 inches, I weigh about 155lbs.  Am I worried about it?  No.  But I do watch that scale; it’s still an indicator.  Every time my weight creeps up a bit, so do my cholesterol scores, which are an indicator of heart and cardio-vascular health.  (Translation: I’d prefer to not have a heart attack or stroke due to something I can influence, like high cholesterol.)   And if I let my BMI creep too high, my knees bother me.   Even though muscle is “good,” it’s still a weight that my knees, ankles and feet must carry.

When in doubt, I personally trust the New York Times for well-vetted information.  Just a few days ago, an article popped up praising BMI as the best indicator of health risks that we currently have.  

 TODAY’S TAKE-AWAYS

  • Know your BMI – it’s a realistic assessment of your height & weight
  • Get real about your risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis
  • Make a plan to get that BMI into a reasonable range.  You’re worth it.

 RECOMMENDED READING FOR LOWERING YOUR BMI

About the Author
Christine Binnendyk is the creator of the Ageless Pilates and Barre Fitness workout programs, taught exclusively at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.. Nike employees take her Pain Free Body, Pain Free Athlete and Pain Free at the Office workshops at the Nike Sports Centers. Public workshops are available through Portland Community College, Club Sport Oregon and the Warrior Room. Find her best-selling book “Ageless Pilates” on Amazon.
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