Have you ever been to the doctor’s office for a routine checkup and found out that your weight has fluctuated by five, or maybe even 10 pounds? It may come as a surprise, but this is actually very common, and completely healthy. It’s also just one of several reasons why your weight isn’t always a great indicator of how ‘healthy’ you are, so to speak. Here are 6 other things that can give you a better idea of your health than the numbers on the scale.
1. Your body composition
Your weight isn’t the most dependable indicator of your overall health because variables like bone structure, muscle composition and activity level all impact your health in ways that your weight doesn’t necessarily show. According to health motivation expert and founder of FitShrink, Dr. Kelly Morrow-Baez, body mass index (BMI), which is a tool that uses your height and weight together to categorize your weight as underweight, normal, overweight, or obese, fails to take these variables into account.
Due to this, a fit athlete with a dense bone frame and extra muscles could be categorized as overweight -- when in reality, they’re completely healthy!
This is exactly what happened to Sophia, a senior at Bowdoin College, when she was a competitive swimmer. During high school she was categorized as being at risk for becoming overweight by her BMI. In reality, she weighed more because of her muscle density—a result of a vigorous training schedule that had her swimming over 20 hours a week and lifting weights at least three times per week as well.
“I had an incredible cardiovascular system and was pretty much a pack of pure muscle,” She says. Sophia also says that ever since then, she’s been pretty skeptical of the scale.
Dr. Morrow-Baez says that is why she believes you should forget about BMI (and how it uses your body weight in comparison to your height) as a measure of health. If you’re a number person and you do want a concrete figure to work with, she suggests seeing a nutritionist and opting for a body fat assessment instead. Plus, most college campuses have their own registered dietitians on staff for these kinds of consultations!
2. How much time you spend sitting
In the age of hour-plus lectures to attend, papers to write and desk-work to do, sitting has become a very consuming part of our day. In fact, a recent report released by the National Institutes of Health revealed that adults spend 60-71 percent of their waking hours sitting and engaging in sedentary activities (such as driving or working at a desk). If you’re wondering why this is so bad and what it has to do with your overall health, Personal Health Expert and CEO of health tracking app ph360 Matt Riemann broke it down for us.
For many, sitting means slouching. According to Riemann, this poor posture is bad for your spine’s health, and it also restricts the amount of air that your lungs are able to take in. One immediate side effect of this is poor concentration (as a result of not being able to take in as much oxygen). Over time, sitting too much can lead to poor circulation, decreased muscle tone and can put you at risk for cardiovascular problems, difficulty sleeping and even anxiety—yikes! Riemann revealed the secret to breaking up the monotony of sitting and decreasing your risk for those health problems: walks.
“Walks can be beneficial,” Riemann says. “Reduced oxygen can even hinder concentration so you’re better off taking a break and getting some movement to study better than [spending] hours at you desk.” He also says that your walk breaks don’t have to be super long or get in the way of your work. Breaks of just five minutes for each hour you spend sitting down are extremely effective for decreasing your risk for health complications that are associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
3. Your diet
The quality of your diet is so much more important than you might think It (along with the water you drink) is what keeps your body working at its best. According to registered dietician and nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating Rene Ficek, the way the food you eat affects your body chemistry also affects your mental well-being. She explained that is because certain foods stimulate your endocrine system by facilitating the production of specific hormones that impact every process in your body, from your mood to your cell functions.
Whole grains, for example, increase serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) levels in the body, while meat can raise the body’s levels of adrenaline (which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response, raising your body’s stress levels). But, according to Ficek, fast food is by far the biggest antagonist in regards to your body’s well being.
“Fast food meals contain a toxic mixture of unhealthy fats, preservatives, coloring and refined carbohydrates that can create imbalances in your brain,” Ficek says. She also says that it isn’t just one ingredient that’s to blame for these imbalances, which can lead to feeling depressed or hyperactive.
The best way to combat these effects is by avoiding fast foods in your diet and instead reaching for foods that you know are better for you.
4. How much you exercise
Exercise is one of the trickier items on the list because many people seem to have a preconceived notion of what constitutes ‘too little’ exercise. Dr. Morrow-Baez says that most of the time our mindset is the biggest obstacle to getting healthier. Like the earlier example of taking a five-minute walk break for every hour you spend working, it’s actually pretty easy to incorporate more exercise into your everyday life. According to Dr. Morrow-Baez, “consistency beats intensity,” which means that you don’t have to work out for an hour everyday to see results.
“I never really worked out before this year of college because I have exercise-induced asthma. I still can’t even run a half-mile without feeling the symptoms of asthma setting in,” Kayla, a sophomore at Kennesaw State University who also says that although she is petite, she credits her build to her high metabolism and not a balanced exercise regimen, which she’s trying to change. “Compared to a lot of people, I’m in very poor health if you base it off of ability to complete cardio activities and VO2 max.”
You can always start simple. with 10-20 minutes of exercise two or three times a week. It might not sound like much (and it’s certainly not your maximum capacity for exercise), but starting with a lower goal is easy for even the busiest of collegiettes to work into their day. Dr. Morrow-Baez also emphasizes that celebrating small wins (such as fitting in a 10-minute workout) sets the foundation for establishing better and longer lasting good habits for the long run.
5. Your sleep patterns
The last time you had to pull an all-nighter, or got less than seven hours of sleep, how did you feel? Chances are, the answer is “not great.” That’s because when you sleep, your body not only rests, but also resets and rebuilds. Your brain is hard at work priming you to mentally handle the day ahead of you when you wake. If you don’t have this time to rest and reset, you won't be well-equipped for the next day.
According to cardiologist Dr. Jason Guichard, sleep deprivation (generally sleeping for seven hour or less per night) stresses your body by increasing inflammatory markers in your bloodstream. The stress your body is subjected to as a result of these markers can lead to anxiety, depression and impaired attention, judgement and memory.
Brooklynn, a junior at Ohio University, says she’s “a disaster” if she doesn’t get at least seven hours of sleep per night. “Getting enough sleep helps me have the motivation to start the day. I'm not falling asleep in lecture or skipping a workout to take a nap.” If you find yourself unable to stay awake in lecture, or reaching for more than one or two cups of coffee a day, you may be suffering from sleep deprivation. While it’s normal to have an occasional night of less-than-optimal sleep, you really should be aiming for at seven and a half to eight hours per night.
6. Your skin
Many medical conditions can manifest themselves through the only organ you can actually see visually: your skin. Dr. Tshippora Shainhouse, a Beverly Hills dermatologist explains that conditions like Celiac disease, Polycystic Ovarian Symptom and melanoma are a handful of serious medical conditions whose symptoms can show up as skin abnormalities.
Dr. Shainhouse says that overall, acne is the most common skin concern she encounters among young women at her practice. However, the causes of acne vary depending on your age group. According to Dr. Shainhouse, teenage acne is often caused by bacteria on the skin, clogged pores and the production of excess oil on the skin’s surface. This kind of acne is generally treatable with skin creams or sometimes antibiotics.
She explains that acne in your 20s can be more complicated to treat than teenage acne because hormone imbalances are usually an underlying cause of acne in adults. This means treating acne in your 20s might require hormone modification—which isn’t as scary as it sounds. She also says that sometimes, just switching up your birth control can solve for it!
While it's easy to focus on the numbers you can see to quantify exactly how healthy you think you are, there’s far more at play in determining your health. You’re so much more than a number, and you deserve to remember that by celebrating the small victories like a quick workout, adequate sleep, or a combination of all of the six factors we mentioned.