Weight, BMI, WTF

The picture accompanying today’s post illustrates the problem at hand – this incredibly muscular guy will likely be tagged as ‘Obese’ for his weight/height ratio alone. If that can happen, why do we even use this measurement?

We exist in a pretty dismal situation in this country, where it comes to an individual’s weight and understanding its significance. We as a society determined that a person’s weight on a scale is a significant number – and the sad fact is that we treat people very differently based on their weight, especially medical professionals & fitness professionals. I can’t solve anything about this at a societal level, but as a trainer, I want you to know that your scale weight is not who you are, and I won’t treat you like it is. Also, it’s NOT a definitive snapshot of your health, and it can change significantly if you are a woman who has either gone through or is currently going through menopause. There’s a study (linked here) that describes what changes in the post-menopausal body, and it’s pretty eye-opening. Bone density, and height can actually change (women can lose height due to bone density diminishing) while visceral fat is accumulating, so if a person is somehow still skating along at an “acceptable” BMI, a lot can be going on that warrants better medical attention.

What’s the take-away from this, though? Basically, get enough weight-bearing exercise to increase your lean body mass, and keep an eye on your waist-hip ratio, especially if it increasing in the waist measurement recently. The scale tells a story about mass. It is a limited technology that doesn’t tell the story of you. Women spending excessive amounts of time trying to be lighter and lighter, in order to fit some societal ideal does’t make an allowance for having enough lean body mass, or muscle. For perspective, the minimum BMI for runway models is still about 18.1 – the ‘healthy range’ is 18.5-24.9, and 18.1 is considered ‘malnourished’. We hold up malnourished adolescents as a societal beauty ideal, and at the same time, we societally suffer from a significant rise in weight-linked metabolic diseases…why? Why this disconnect between what we *claim* we think is beautiful and aspirational vs. how we actually live? Maybe we suspect how unrealistic/unattainable/unsustainable it really is?

In my work with clients, I’ve found the best approaches are to try and put BMI into perspective, and focus on healthy nutrition goals (to the extent that a personal trainer is appropriate for that information). I work with people on increasing their heart & lung health, their endurance & strength, and I put a big emphasis on building muscle slowly and sustainably. The reason I can work with people from their 30s-80s is that the underlying fundamentals are always the same.

  • Eat enough protein for your activity level
  • Get enough sleep every single night
  • Drink enough water
  • Avoid processed foods as much as possible
  • Limit alcohol
  • Start with 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, but ramp up to as much as you can do (and still enjoy it)
  • Get a minimum of 3 strength-training workouts a week, too

A higher BMI isn’t a death sentence, and if your doctor treats your health based solely on that, find a new doctor. Your clinical results (your tests), your body measurements, and your overall fitness are far more telling than this one number. Yes, there are lots of aspects of personal responsibility to your personal health…that just makes sense. But BMI isn’t necessarily a sensible way to understand a person OR their level of personal commitment to their health.