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What does it mean to be at a healthy weight?
It’s not just about the number on the scale. Find out why keeping a healthy body weight can help protect you from serious diseases. We’ve got advice on how you can do it, too.
Maybe you’ve been at the same steady weight for years. Or perhaps you’ve put on a few pounds recently, or worry that you might be underweight. And that makes you wonder: Are you at a healthy weight for your body? Could you boost your health by losing or gaining a few pounds — or are you perfectly fine where you are?
Body weight is a complex topic. And that’s exactly why we’re tackling your most common questions. We’ll cover what a healthy weight is, why it matters and how to get there.
What’s a healthy weight?
You’d think the answer would be straightforward. But what’s considered a healthy weight can vary quite a bit. This is true even among a group of people who are all the same height, sex and age.
“The number on the scale only tells part of the story,” says Shiara Ortiz-Pujols, MD. She’s a medical director of obesity medicine at Med Express, part of Optum, in New York City. “It doesn’t tell you where your fat is stored and how much muscle you have,” she says. This is important. Where your body stores fat can raise your chances of having certain medical problems.
Body mass index (BMI) is a common method used to categorize a person’s weight. But it also has its flaws. A very muscular athlete might be considered overweight based on BMI. (A BMI between 25 and 30 falls within the “overweight” range. A BMI of 30 or higher falls in the ”obese” range.) That’s because muscle is denser and weighs more than fat. So having more lean muscle mass will raise the number you’ll see on the scale. On the flip side, someone might have a “normal” BMI and not be healthy. This can happen if they have poor health habits, like not exercising or sleeping enough.
“It’s better to be above your ‘ideal’ weight and exercise regularly than be thin and unfit,” says Ben Brock. He’s a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of community programs at Optum Care Arizona. Take osteoporosis, for example. It’s also known as “brittle bones.” Being thin and not exercising puts you at a higher risk for it.
The best way to know if you’re at a weight that’s right for you is to talk to your doctor. They’ll look at many factors to check your health besides weight. These may include:
- Measuring your waist (fat around your waist has been linked to more disease)
- Checking your blood sugar levels and cholesterol (fat in the blood)
- Asking how much energy you have and whether you can do everyday activities
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What does body fat do?
Fat actually has many important purposes. It cushions your organs and helps take in vital nutrients. Fat also stores the energy you need to be active. And even when you’re resting, fat provides about 70% of the energy required to keep your body working.1 That’s according to the American Council on Exercise.
But having too much body fat can be bad for your health. And having a lot of visceral fat can lead to serious problems. This is a type of fat found around the organs in your belly. It’s almost like an organ itself. It makes hormones and other substances that can harm your health.
Experts think visceral fat causes inflammation throughout the body.2 (Inflammation happens when the body creates special cells that attack germs or heal damaged tissue.) This lead to serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
What does muscle do?
Muscle is made up of stretchy fibers that contain cells able to produce body movement. Some muscles help the heart pump blood (cardiac muscle). Others line the inside of your hollow organs, like the bladder and uterus. They help perform tasks such as digestion (smooth muscle). These muscles work without you even having to think about them.
You use skeletal muscles to stand, walk and do other activities. They’re attached to your bones and make up 40% of your total body mass.3
If you’re trying to be healthier, building skeletal muscle is a key part of your weight loss plan. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does. “The more muscle we put on, the better,” says Dr. Ortiz-Pujols. “We need muscle to impact metabolism and keep it going.” Metabolism is the rate at which your body burns calories.
Why does having a healthy weight matter so much?
Staying at a healthy weight can help protect you from serious health problems.4 Being overweight or having obesity increases your risk of:
- High blood pressure. When you’re carrying excess weight, your blood volume increases. That means your heart has to work harder to move blood around your body. Over time, that can increase your risk of high blood pressure and damaged blood vessels. And high blood pressure can lead to other serious problems like stroke, heart attack and kidney disease.8 (The kidneys are organs that filter your blood.)
- Type 2 diabetes. People who are overweight are more likely to have insulin resistance. Insulin is a chemical that helps your cells use blood sugar for energy. If your blood sugar levels get too high, you could end up with type 2 diabetes.
- Heart disease. Having excess weight or obesity can raise levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol that builds up in the arteries. This raises your risk of having a heart attack. Too much body fat can also raise levels of another type of fat in the blood called triglycerides. These may play a role in hardening of the arteries, and lead to heart disease. To make matters worse, excess body fat can also reduce levels of the good kind of cholesterol (HDL). HDL removes bad cholesterol from the blood and works to reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Stroke. Extra weight can lead to clogged arteries. This raises your risk of having a stroke. A stroke can happen when fat in the arteries block a blood vessel that delivers blood to the brain.
- Sleep apnea. Too much body fat puts you at an elevated risk of this sleep disorder. That’s because increased fat deposits in the neck can block your upper airway.
- Osteoarthritis. Carrying extra pounds can put stress on your joints. It can speed up the destruction of the cartilage that cushions them.
- Gallstones. Obesity increases the amount of cholesterol in bile. Bile is a digestive fluid stored in the gallbladder. That excess fat can increase the risk of painful stones developing.
- Kidney disease. Excess weight forces your kidneys to work harder to filter waste. It can also cause indirect harm to the kidneys. Why? The two main causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Certain types of cancer. Experts aren’t sure why having too much weight leads to cancer. But overweight and obesity are linked to a higher risk of 13 different types. These include cancer of the colon (large intestine) and rectum, kidneys, liver and ovaries.5 Higher levels of estrogen or insulin may play a role.6
Why is it hard to lose weight?
You’ve probably heard that you should move more and eat less. It sounds so simple. But many forces can make that challenging, such as:
- Your biology. The human body evolved to store fat and energy. This helped people survive thousands of years ago. “But our bodies are still in that state,” says Dr. Ortiz-Pujols. When you cut calories and start exercising, the body tries to keep you at your current weight.
- Your family history. It’s possible to carry “obesity genes” that could make it harder to lose weight. But research suggests that these genes play a small part in a person’s weight problems.
- Your culture. Food is often used as a way to celebrate an event or reward yourself. And often the foods we choose are high in calories. For example, going out for ice cream, having birthday cake, eating cheeseburgers at a barbecue. It’s a tough habit to break.
- Your psychology. We live in an age when food is readily available, and ads for it are everywhere. It can be hard to resist temptation, especially if you find comfort in eating. “Turning to food for comfort is a natural human reaction,” says Lauren Spradling, RD. She’s a Chicago-based health coach for Real Appeal with Rally, part of Optum. “But you may have more trouble controlling your calorie intake compared to others who see food as fuel.”
- Your age. As you get older, you burn fewer calories. This can lead to weight gain. Blame it on a natural loss of muscle mass and, for some people, being less active.
- Lack of time. Most people are busier than ever. They may struggle to find time to exercise and prepare healthy meals. A packed schedule may also cause you to skimp on sleep. This is linked to weight gain and obesity.
What are the best ways to lose weight safely?
Fad diets don’t work, experts say. But building healthy eating habits over the long term can help. Below are some smart strategies for safe weight loss.
Get smarter about calories. This doesn’t necessarily mean eat less food.7 Try replacing high-calorie foods with lower-calorie choices that still fill you up. Cut back on sugary drinks like sodas, too. Choose sparkling or plain water instead. And stay away from crash diets and fad diets. They don’t help you keep the weight off, which is your goal. Learn more about how to lose weight without counting calories.
Eat more fiber. Found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, fiber helps you feel full without a lot of calories. We have 10 delicious high-fiber foods you can add to your rotation.
Choose heart-healthy fats. Stay away from saturated fat and trans fat. These raise your LDL levels. Look for foods that contain “good fat” (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). Choose olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and flaxseed. Another healthy choice is omega-3 fatty acids. They’re found in fatty or oily fish and walnuts.
Keep a food diary. People often underestimate how many calories they’re eating. Tracking what you eat can help you identify areas where you can cut back.
Move more. You don’t have to join a gym or commit to a hardcore fitness plan to lose weight. Simple activities such as walking and dancing also work well. “Even finding little ways to sneak movement into your day can make a big difference, such as marching in place while you watch TV,” Brock says. These tips can help boost your exercise motivation.
Build muscle. Add strength training to your workout program. Try including exercises that work several muscle groups at once. These include squats and leg lifts. As you get stronger, try to shorten the rest time between sets. This also encourages fat loss.7 Here’s a 10-minute interval workout you can do anywhere.
Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can sabotage your weight loss goals in several ways. It can alter your body’s levels of hunger hormones and make you feel too tired to exercise. Aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Create a support system. Ask family or friends to go with you on an after-dinner walk or talk to you when you’re feeling discouraged. Join a weight loss support group led by a dietitian or certified health coach.
Need some extra help reaching your goals? Mental health resources from Optum can help. Work with a virtual coach or therapist one-on-one with AbleTo. Find support now.
- AceFitness.org. 10 things to know about fat and exercise. Published March 26, 2018. Accessed September 6, 2018.
- The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Novel genetic locus of visceral fat and systemic inflammation. Published April 3, 2019. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- The Korean Journal of Internal Medicine. Differences among skeletal muscle mass indices derived from height-, weight-, and body mass index-adjusted models in assessing sarcopenia. Published June 22, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Health risks of overweight and obesity. Updated July 17, 2017. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity and cancer. Last reviewed July 13, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- National Cancer Institute. Obesity and cancer. Last reviewed April 5, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cutting calories. Last reviewed June 3, 2022. Accessed September 12, 2022.
- AceFitness.org. The best resistance-training program for fat loss. Published December 5, 2017. Accessed September 6, 2022.
- Hypertension. Weight-Loss Strategies for Prevention and Treatment of Hypertension: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Published September 20, 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022.
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