How do you know when you are at a healthy weight?
April 1, 2009 11:19 AM   Subscribe

How do you know when you are at a healthy weight?

I am a large-framed, 5'11" male that has been overweight for the majority of my adult-bodied life, starting when I was a teenager. At my peak, I weighed as high at 340 pounds reaching that point for a variety of reasons (anxiety, apathy, low self-esteem, genetics). At a certain point, I got fed up with the negative side-effects of being overweight and started dieting and exercise. After hundreds of miles of running and calorie restriction, I am currently at 224 pounds; approximately losing 1-3 pounds per week. I feel comfortable with what I have achieved and where I am headed towards.

I definitely have my Dad's gut along with a good amount of body fat that I would like to reduce. Based on the BMI as a generic, yet flawed benchmark, I think I would like to get down to approximately 170 pounds in order to tighten everything up, but I am unsure.

I have no perception as to what it means for me to be average weight or skinny, so I do not know when I should switch from a weight loss routine to a healthy weight maintenance routine. All I have to go by currently are numeric metrics (weight, body fat %, pant size, etc.) but I don't know how low is low enough for me.

For those who have been on a weight loss program of any type, how do you determine when you are finished with your regimen and what criteria did you use for that determination?
posted by seppyk to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I like Cockeyed's photographic chart because you can actually see what all of these numbers look like on real people.
posted by phunniemee at 11:24 AM on April 1, 2009 [7 favorites]

Your healthy weight is the weight you are at while engaging in healthy life habits. Exercise regularly, eat a wide variety of healthful foods in an amount sufficient to satisfy you without overindulging, and find ways to relieve stress and make yourself happy. The weight your body maintains while doing those things is your healthy weight.
posted by decathecting at 11:33 AM on April 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't think you should focus on weight, instead I think you should focus on body fat%.

If you want to be considered "not fat", aim for a body fat % less than 20%.

If you want to be considered "fit", aim for a body fat % in the 13- 15% range.

If you want to be in "phenomenal shape" aim for a body fat % of <>
If you want to go by weight alone, I think the BMI is okay. A TON of people complain about the BMI, saying that it doesn't account for people with large amounts of muscle. This is true- but I think it only applies to semi-pro body builders and football players. You will find that most NBA-caliber basketball players fall neatly in the BMI (and have great bf %'s to boot). If you're stuck on the weight number, though, aim for the middle of your BMI.

Another thing-your body will naturally switch from a weight loss routine to a healthy maintenance routine once it reaches the target weight it wants. If you're consuming the amount of calories a 170 lb person should eat, and you are 200 lb, you will lose weight until you are 170 lb. So based on that, establish a long-term diet that you enjoy and that you can see yourself eating for the rest of your life. That diet will be your weight-loss diet as you lose weight, as well as your healthy diet when you are at your target weight.
posted by unexpected at 11:36 AM on April 1, 2009

Honestly, if you've been that heavy, your "healthy" weight is likely much higher than someone of similar structure who's always been skinny. You're gonna have more skin, heavier bones just from carrying that weight, and more well developed legs from moving that weight around.

At 5'-10", my target is 170, and my adult range has been 163 (fitness insanity, 2000 cal/day workouts, gaunt look) to 194.

posted by notsnot at 11:39 AM on April 1, 2009

(sigh) This is probably the quintessential YMMV question.

I used to get this question a lot when I was a health educator and the honest truth is: only you can know what's "right" for your body. Cliche I know, but hear me out.

Your right about BMI being flawed, especially when applying it on a person by person basis, since it's most effective when addressing large groups of people (and even then exceptions abound). The best you're going to find, as far as numbers go, is a healthy weight range based on your age and height. Even this will change depending on the source.

My advice to you is know what the healthy range is, get there, and then forget about numbers! In the end that's all they are. Numbers can't tell you how healthy you actually are or how good you feel about the way you look. Ask yourself "what is it that I really want to accomplish by exercising?" For me it was fitting back into a 34 inch waist and being able to run 5 miles on a tread mill. Even after I dropped under my "target weight" I found I still couldn't quite hit that 5 mile mark, so I kept going.

The other reason relying on a number can be dangerous is that any good exercise program relies on not only fat loss, but also muscle gain. Since muscle weighs more than fat, at some point your body will actually start to gain weight in response to increased muscle tissue. Going strictly by "the numbers" you might incorrectly assume that you're not trying hard enough and/or get discouraged when you see your weight loss slow down or even reverse direction, when in fact you're actually doing everything right.

Bottom line: Know the numbers/ranges etc., but let the ultimate deciding factor for when you switch from a weight loss routine to something else be a personal goal, not a scale readout.
posted by Smarson at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2009

The metric I use, and one of the metrics used by people with various fitness goals, is the mirror. While body fat percentage is a great metric and great to help a professional tailor a fitness program, the mirror is the simplest feedback method available.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:43 AM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Scale weight is less relevant than fitness goals and fitness outcomes. If you have attained all your fitness goals, if your blood pressure and heart rate are within healthy ranges, if your cholesterol is in a healthy range, your scale weight is irrelevant except insofar as it's an index for you of whether you're keeping on track with your fitness regime.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:44 AM on April 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some better measures of health than weight include cholesterol level, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, how often you eat healthy food and exercise, etc. Weight doesn't necessarily indicate health and as decathecting said, your lifestyle is a much better indicator than a number on a scale or on an arbitrary index. So if your goal really is to be healthy, then you should be on a health maintenance routine rather than a weight maintenance routine.

For some great info you can google "Health at Every Size".
posted by Kimberly at 11:48 AM on April 1, 2009

Very good perspectives here. The only thing I would add is that there's a big difference (in perception, at least) between how I look in a mirror and how I look in a photograph. I tend to use pictures as my reference points as opposed to mirrors.

Great job on your progress so far!
posted by bluejayway at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2009

The BMI chart is just plain wrong, ignore it.

Bodyfat % is still a good number though, and there's better ways to measure it than using a chart. Hydrostatic Body Fat testing (dunk tank) is much more accurate and used to be the gold standard. Even calipers wielded by an experienced trainer are better than the BMI chart.

Go out and get an accurate BF % measurement, that will help you set weight goals. Also get your bloodwork done as mentioned by others. There are multiple aspects to being healthy - you can be skinny and still be unhealthy.
posted by jpeacock at 12:12 PM on April 1, 2009

I'd be a bit careful not to dismiss the BMI charts and use the mirror alone as a guide. I'm 5'11' and averaged 175 lb through most of college but once (on a long SE Asian holiday) went down to 130 lb without really shedding my belly fat. Over the last 25 years I've slowly gone up to 205 lb and in the last 2 years I've exercised (running without much dieting) down to 180. I've plateaued there for the time being because I enjoy pasta and can't give it up. Personally, I'd say 170 might be an difficult weight to maintain in the long term but I'm going to keep it as my goal. If you tend to be heavy because of heredity, then you might be a happier person overall by plateauing somewhere under 200 lb and then shifting your focus into other aspects of life while eating healthy and figuring out how the exercise is going to fit into your lifestyle in the long term. Of course, I've never had the experience of coming down from the weight you were at so take this with a grain of salt.

I think a scale is great because it gives you an objective benchmark and looking in the mirror can be kind of unreliable because our moods can dramatically affect how we see ourselves.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:22 PM on April 1, 2009

My boyfriend is about your size, and he uses his chin as a metric. If he sees a double chin in a photo, he hits the treadmill.

Not sure how this will work for someone who has extra skin from weight loss (or a pear-shaped woman, for that matter) but personally I casually monitor my own subcutaneous fat by counting the number of skin-folds on my belly when seated. Leave your abs relaxed- even suck them sin slightly- tuck your pelvis forward, and hunch your upper body like this, until your belly has made as many folds of skin as it possibly can. Count those folds.

As you lose weight, count periodically, and you should see more skin folds gradually appearing. As a general rule of thumb, the more skin-folds you see across your belly, the lower your body fat percentage, because subcutaneous fat pads out your skin folds and makes them join forces into fewer skin folds. If you're really overweight you'll have one skin-fold, ie, a potbelly. If you have very low body fat, your belly skin will form into 6 or 8 thin horizontal wrinkles- I couldn't find the perfect photo to illustrate this phenomenon, but look how many wrinkles there are on this woman's belly right below her bra- that's basically just skin wrinkling, there's almost no fat in there at all. An average-weight person might have 3-5 wrinkles. Here's a very fit woman with 3 visible above her navel (NSFW), which probably means 6-7 alltogether; and a super-thin or very ripped person might have more than 10.

Everyone will have a fold just above the hipbones and one just under the pecs (like this dude). Having a fold that directly crosses your belly button is probably a good start for you if you tend to carry abdominal weight in the form of a beer gut. In general, the more weight you lose, the more folds you'll see across your belly.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:47 PM on April 1, 2009 [8 favorites]

Here's a fairly average-sized woman (I'd peg her at about 5'3", 145lbs) with three big creases.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:54 PM on April 1, 2009

That was really cool pseudostrabismus.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:55 PM on April 1, 2009

Wait, what, pseudostrabismus? I find I get more folds when I weigh more because, well, there's more fat there, and it needs to go somewhere when I slouch. Or am I missing something? (Maybe they're just more noticeable/deeper when I weigh more?)

(I've always been skinny to average weight.)
posted by wyzewoman at 12:57 PM on April 1, 2009

Your skin has to compress when you slouch. When you have low body fat, the wrinkles just look like skin. As your body fat increases, you'll have a lower number of folds, and between the folds will be rolls of fat. Compare the many shallow wrinkles on this very fit guy's belly, to the fewer, deeper wrinkles (with rolls between them) on this average woman's belly, to the total lack of wrinkles across this pot belly. Wyzewoman, you're probably noticing the size of the rolls (which do increase as you gain weight) rather than the number of wrinkles.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2009

OK, you're right, pseudostrabismus. It's the size I notice. (I guess it does matter after all?) Thanks!
posted by wyzewoman at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2009

I wish there wasn't so much "BMI IS WRONG IGNORE IT GRAAARGH" because honestly, it is not wrong for the vast majority of people. Are you a serious weightlifter or power/strength athlete--that is, have you been lifting at least three times a week for more than six months and making good progress on all of your lifts? If so, BMI may not apply to you. But the vast majority of the population does NOT engage in that kind of activity and you are kind of deceiving yourself to run around screaming about big bones, when big bones are accounted for in the BMI chart range.

However, if you are still insistent that BMI does not apply to you, an easy way is to calculate your approximate body fat percentage using a tape measure (like on this site and aim for a healthy percentage.
posted by schroedinger at 2:20 PM on April 1, 2009

BMI is not wrong for most people, just not sensitive/specific enough for an individual person's measurement to be any better than a rough estimate of their health status. The upper and lower bounds for "healthy" BMI also vary considerably by ethnic group.

Once you've already used BMI to set a very rough ballpark goal, body fat percentage is indeed a pretty good metric. I don't have the resources to get a professional dunk test, so I bought a bathroom scale that measures body fat percentage in addition to weight.

The accuracy not only varies from brand to brand (so look at reviews online for the latest ones) but also from person to person and depending on how you take the measurement (pre-/post-shower, posture, contact between parts of your body). This likely has to do with the bioimpedance method most of the scales use. The upshot is that you will not want to use the measurement of the scale as a be-all-end-all for knowing when you've "gotten there;" use it to get an estimate of where you are and use it as an approximately internally consistent measurement of your progress.

The backup you should use to the body weight/body fat scale is an old-fashioned inexpensive tape measure. For health purposes, your waist, neck, and hip measurements are significant numbers. They are measurements of body fat distribution, which correlates with your risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. You can also use them to estimate a body fat percentage, as others noted.

White males should strive for a waist measurement below 40 inches and a waist-to-hip ratio below 0.9, I believe. These numbers are different for different ethnic groups. East Asian, south Asian, and Latino males should aim for waist measurements below 37 inches, perhaps even below 35 inches for south Asian males. African American males may get more generous measurements than white males, although this isn't clear yet, at least to me. Generally speaking, lower waist measurements within a healthy BMI range are always better.

Where to measure the waist and hips can be tricky. In reading papers I've found that for the waist researchers have used anything from the narrowest point between the ribcage and hip bones to simply just around the navel. I chose to start measuring around what I feel is my natural waistline. If you don't have a waistline, you can pick the point between the base of your ribcage and the top of your hip bones (the iliac crest). Resist the urge to cheat by pulling the tape measure tight, sucking anything in, or choosing to measure around the narrowest point if you know you have a gut. Hips are usually measured around the widest part.

I have never found the mirror particularly useful beyond a certain point. Photographs are much better, but if you are used to seeing yourself a certain way, you may not notice that you are underweight or overweight. Measurements are a more objective way to keep track of your progress. Even a pair of jeans that you want to fit into comfortably makes a great metric.

As someone already mentioned, it is usually much harder for people who were once obese to drop to a normal BMI and maintain it for long periods of time; it is also usually harder for them to drop to a low-normal body fat percentage and waist measurement. Don't beat yourself up if you can't reach specific numerical body targets, as long as your blood lipids and blood glucose are good and your strength and endurance are good.
posted by jeeves at 3:12 PM on April 1, 2009

Also, major congratulations on losing the weight so far, even if you never lose another pound. 116 pounds is a huge drop. By any weight loss researcher's standards you'd be a big success if you manage to maintain that loss and your fitness level.
posted by jeeves at 3:16 PM on April 1, 2009

I'm about 5' 9". ...male.

I am 54 years old or is that young? I have weighed as much as 204. But that was getting pretty heavy for me. I ate whatever I wanted. Right now I'm down to about 165-170. I wouldn't want to weigh any less than that. I think my ideal weight would be about 180 with a little more muscle added to the weight I am now. I've lost some (weight and muscle) because of an injury plus an illness that both prevent me from exercising. I think if you got down to about 185-200 and kept active, you'd find that a good weight for you. A lot depends on how much muscle you have and want. Things will "tighten up" so long as you stay active. Walking, running, riding a bike, etc., etc.,....

I think your age can make a difference in your weight too. How old/young are you?
posted by Taurid at 6:05 PM on April 1, 2009

For those who have been on a weight loss program of any type, how do you determine when you are finished with your regimen and what criteria did you use for that determination?

Acceptable result: no muffin tops visible (bare chested) over jeans with belt done up snugly (but not uncomfortably tight).

Outstanding result: sixpack visible. On a guy, this equates to about 5% body fat, much of which is actually in the internal organs like the liver, and is essential for health.

That's actually on the low end of healthy, so somewhere between "acceptable" and "outstanding" is where I'd leave things off these days - ie the existence of abs is visible, but without each one being individually defined.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:07 PM on April 1, 2009

wow, people are really over thinking this, imho. Basically lean is a healthy weight - you want a trim waist, good muscle definition, enough strength to do a moderate body weight exercises workout, no layers of fat, no wobbly bits, and good endurance. By good endurance I mean run 5 miles, hike 10 miles, climb a mountain, ride a bike 50 miles or, y'know, something pretty strenuous.

That's a healthy weight.
posted by fshgrl at 7:10 PM on April 1, 2009

Thanks to the hive-mind for providing me with a lot of feedback. As an update, I'm currently sitting at 213 pounds and still moving downward with hard work and proper diet.

I am going to continue to use weight (BMI) and body fat percentage as my main metrics. In terms of soft metrics, I like the idea of observing myself via a photograph. This gives me a better idea of how others view me (in terms of my whole body). As far as final goals, I can't say for sure unfortunately until I get closer to meeting the average metrics for someone of my height.
posted by seppyk at 5:43 PM on May 3, 2009

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