How to Find Your Healthy Body Weight

Man using stand-up scale
The scale is only one tool to use when determining your ideal body weight.
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You've undoubtedly heard the stats bandied about: We, as a society, are becoming less healthy. Much of the problem has to do with our ever-increasing weight. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight.

The Journal of the American Medical Association states than more than 30 percent of Americans are obese and those numbers are trending higher. With the Westernization of cultures around the globe (think fast food, large meal portions and less physical activity) the threat to good health is real for everyone.


It's also dangerous to be too skinny but the Centers for Disease Control reports that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is considered underweight -- and those numbers are trending lower. So, how can you determine the weight that is best for you?

When you go on a search, a couple of things are vital: A clear definition of what you're looking for and a list of the most likely places to find it. In this case, we want to find your healthy body weight -- a weight at which you are able to lead a vigorous, well-balanced life both now and in the long-term.

There are myriad formulas and tools for determining your healthy body weight, but many are not nearly as accurate or reliable as you may have been led to believe. You are, after all, a unique creature and that means you have physical characteristics that are yours alone. What's more, popular culture can complicate your search by sidetracking you with images of waif-like models, gargantuan hulks and airbrushed movie stars. With that in mind, let's take a look at the resources available for finding your healthy body weight and compare the results with conventional wisdom, which is often wrong.

We begin with the most popular indicator of healthy body weight, the BMI or body mass index. This, however, is not a popularity contest. So, how does the BMI stand up to scrutiny from medical experts?


The BMI as a Gauge of Health

If you've ever seen a chart listing the ideal weight range for someone of your height, you're probably familiar with the body mass index. Unlike the typical bathroom scale that calculates only total weight, the BMI will give you an idea of how much fat you're carrying. BMI is determined by multiplying a person's weight by 700, then dividing that figure by the individual's height in inches. The resulting number is divided a second time by height in inches to arrive at a final figure which corresponds to a chart listing ranges for underweight, healthy weight, overweight and obese people. The World Health Organization considers a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 to be a healthy reading.

Doctors commonly use the BMI as a starting point for determining a patient's general health, so it'd be easy to assume that the BMI is the gold standard of fitness measurement. Not so. The formula was created by noted Belgium statistician Adolphe Quetelet in the mid 1800s. Much of Quetelet's work focused on determining what characterized the average man. While considered groundbreaking, the BMI or Quetelet Index has huge limitations for the individual. It doesn't differentiate lean weight from fat. That's a problem. Muscle weighs more than fat so -- using the BMI formula -- a stocky athlete would likely be categorized as overweight or obese even if he or she was truly quite lean. The body mass index also fails to address differences associated with race, sex (women need more body fat), age (lean muscle mass tends to decline over time) or bodily location of excess weight. The renowned Mayo Clinic stresses that a person with an apple-shaped body (carrying excess weight in the abdomen) is at greater risk of disease than a person with a pear-shaped body (carrying excess weight in the hips.)


Don't confuse your BMI reading with your body fat percentage. The BMI is not a percentage but, instead, a formula that can be used to arrive at a number broadly defining your physical make up.

The body mass index can be a useful tool to begin the search for your ideal body weight, but it has serious flaws. A deeper, more complex search is necessary to determine a healthy body weight with a high level of accuracy.

We'll weigh the pros and cons of other measuring tools on the next page.


Body Composition Assessments

Medical experts agree that weight alone is a poor gauge of a person's health. It's the composition of that weight that matters most. But the body mass index can be a poor indicator of body composition because it only uses two variables (height and weight) to arrive at a conclusion. Fortunately, there are newer, more accurate assessments available.

Many online body composition calculators can be found with an Internet search. Unlike the BMI, which only relies on weight and height, these calculators may ask for race, sex, age and measurements of waist, hips, chest, thighs or even wrists. Multiple measurements lead to a more accurate analysis of your particular body composition.


In addition, recent research by U.S., German and Austrian medical experts has shown that your waist-to-tallness ratio -- also referred to as waist-height ratio -- is a more accurate forecaster of heart disease risk than the BMI. To determine your waist-to-tallness ratio, multiply your height in inches by 0.55 if you're a man, or by 0.53 if you're a woman. Your waistline should be equal to or less than the resulting number.

Another slightly less reliable, though important, gauge of your health as it pertains to body composition, is the waist-to-hip ratio. Wrap a tape measure around your waist (in line with your belly button), then measure the circumference of your hips (women should measure using the widest part of their buttocks while men are encouraged to measure from the top of their hip bones). The World Health Organization defines abdominal obesity in men as a waist-to-hip ratio of greater than 0.85. In women, a reading of 0.9 or greater indicates abdominal obesity.

Perhaps the simplest diagnostic measurement of health is simply waist circumference alone. The American Heart Association and The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute consider women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches (88 cm) abdominally obese. For men, the number is 40 inches (102 cm) or greater.

Not interested in using formulas and making calculations to arrive at your healthy weight? Next, we'll review the best and worst diagnostic tools available.


Best and Worst Diagnostic Tools

There are a variety of tools available to determine your body composition and, ultimately, arrive at your healthy body weight, including:

  • Body Fat Caliper: Results can be wildly inaccurate depending on the quality of the calipers (plastic or heavy-duty), number of body parts measured and skill of the person using the calipers.
  • Bio-electrical Impedance Scale: These devices, which send a safe electrical current through your body to determine fat percentage, are helpful but can give faulty readings if the subject is dehydrated or even in the midst of a menstruation cycle.
  • DEXA Scanner: Excellent, although expensive, means of determining body composition using X-ray technology in a doctor's office or other medical facility
  • Hydrodensitometry Test: Highly accurate tool to measure body fat by partially submerging the person in water and calculating displacement
  • Bod Pod: Relatively new tool that requires subject to sit in a chamber where air displacement, rather than water displacement is measured

All of these tools were designed on the premise that it's not just the amount of weight you carry -- although that's important -- but the type of weight that determines your health and quality of life, or risk of disease and premature death.


Trying to determine your healthy body weight is an admirable and necessary task, but it must be done with a focus on the composition of that weight, the best available tools and formulas, and an interpretation of the information that is based on your individual age, sex, shape and size.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BodyPower. "Cutler Retains Mr. Olympia Crown." Sept. 28, 2010 (June 29, 2011).
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Healthy Weight." Feb. 15, 2011. (June 20, 2011).
  • Cheryl D. Fryar, M.S.P.H., and Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D. "Prevalence of Underweight Among Adults." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 21, 2009. (June 20, 2011).
  • Flegal, Katherine M. , Ph.D.; Margaret D. Carroll, MSPH; Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D.; Lester R. Curtin, Ph.D. "Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2008." Journal of the American Medical Association. Jan. 13, 2010. (June 20, 2011).
  • Hensrud, Donald D., M.D., M.P.H. "Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight for Everybody." Mayo Clinic Health Information. 2005.
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  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex." Viking Penguin. 2000.
  • "Body Composition." (June 25, 2011).
  • "BMI Badly Flawed." (June 25, 2011).
  • University of Maryland Medical System. "Are You an Apple or a Pear?" (June 25, 2011).
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