We all know the struggle of a fickle scale: you weigh yourself after one unhealthy meal and you’ve gained 5 pounds, only for the blip to even out over the next week. While it’s tempting to focus only the number on the scale, it’s not a great indicator of how healthy you are because your weight fluctuates hour to hour due to food, salt intake, exercise and even the weather.
Your weight doesn’t tell the full story of your health, especially because the number alone doesn’t account for how much muscle and fat you have. If you are working out and building muscle, the number on the scale might go up as you gain muscle (which weighs twice as much as fat), even though you are improving your overall health.
While you shouldn’t completely discount the number on the scale, it only tells a very small piece of the story. Instead of staring at your weight every morning, check out these health markers that’ll give you a much more complete state of affairs.
High blood pressure has been nicknamed the silent killer. And now that I’ve scared you into paying attention, I’ll explain why. When someone has high blood pressure, the force exerted against their artery walls is much larger than it should be. This extra pressure puts strain on your heart and increases your risk of a heart attack, heart disease or stroke. It usually doesn’t present obvious symptoms until it’s too late, so you have to be proactive in measuring it throughout your life.
The good news is that there are many steps you can take to lower blood pressure before taking medication. Limiting salt intake, drinking less alcohol, quitting smoking and getting more daily exercise have all shown to be effective.
How to measure: Chances are you don’t have a blood pressure monitoring machine at home (although it might be a good idea to get one), so you might have to make a doctor’s appointment to check your levels. If you don’t have a scheduled checkup soon, some retail drug stores like CVS offer free use of their machines.
Your reading will give you two numbers: the upper one is called systolic pressure and the lower one diastolic. Generally, you want your systolic pressure under 120 and diastolic under 80. You’ll want both numbers to fall in line, because if your diastolic reading is in a healthy range and your systolic is elevated, the reading still presents a health risk.
Resting heart rate
If you don’t have time to go to the doctor to get your blood pressure checked, your resting heart rate may give you a clue whether it’s too high or not. A study of World Health Organization data showed that elevated resting heart rates are strongly correlated with high blood pressure, and in turn cardiovascular mortality.
A normal resting heart rate is anywhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute, though if you’re in really good shape it might be even lower. While a very high resting heart rate, called tachycardia, can be a serious medical emergency, monitoring average levels can give you good indicators to your overall health as well. Resting heart rate tends to rise when you are stressed, exercising less or not getting enough sleep.
How to measure: Measuring yours is as simple as it sounds: find your pulse either on your neck, the inside of your wrist, or even the top of your foot. For the most accurate results, set a timer for 60 seconds and count the total number of beats. I hope I don’t have to tell you this, but make sure you’re not exercising while measuring your resting heart rate. In fact, do this first thing in the morning before you get out of bed.
Heart rate recovery
There’s another health marker that has to do with your heart: how fast it returns to normal after exercise. Heart rate recovery indicates how good of shape you’re in (if you work out a lot, expect recovery to be fast). It also correlates with your risk of cardiovascular disease, including atrial fibrillation, and all-around mortality. This is another health marker you can be proactive about — with regular cardiovascular exercise (walking, jogging, dancing) you can expect to improve your heart rate recovery in a matter of months.
How to measure: This is another number you can measure at home. First, you need to get your heart rate elevated by working out strenuously. Run, jump, or do jumping jacks to get it up there. If you’re reading this at your desk, you can get up and go sprint around the office. I promise your coworkers will know that you’re performing a very scientific study. Then, measure your heart rate while you’re still breathing heavy. Recover for two minutes, then measure it again. Subtract the first number from the second number, and this is your heart rate recovery.
Generally, you want your heart rate recovery to be in between 22-52 beats per minute, although you’re in the clear for major risks if it’s anywhere above 12. A heart rate recovery that’s lower than 12 is associated with heart issues and type-2 diabetes.
While overall levels of body fat are important factors in your health, what may be the most important is how that fat is distributed. The ratio between the circumference of your waist and circumference of your hips is used as an important health marker for obesity-related illnesses. The more fat you carry around your waist (being apple-shaped as opposed to pear-shaped), the higher your risk is for heart disease.
How to measure: The World Health Organization has detailed instructions on how to take these measurements, specifying to use a stretch-resistant measurement tape. The waist measurement is taken at the midpoint between the last rib and the top or your pelvis. The hip circumference is taken at the widest point of the buttocks, with the tape measurement parallel to the floor. Then you divide the first by the second, and voila!
The World Health Organization defines ratios over 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men for being at substantially increased risk for obesity-related illnesses, including metabolic disease and heart disease.
If your ratio is higher than you’d like, the good news is that it’s not permanent. A 2011 study suggested that a diet low in processed foods may lower your waist to hip ratio, so there’s an extra point for the benefits of trying to eat healthier.
Harvard reports that one in every six Americans has high cholesterol, making them twice as likely to develop heart disease. But, cholesterol isn’t all bad — it plays an incredibly important role in your body. It’s found in every cell, and plays a vital role in creating the cell membrane that protects all the good stuff inside.
Typically, when people talk about “cholesterol,” they’re usually referring to LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. There’s also HDL, or “good,” total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but a healthy diet low in processed food is the best first treatment for high cholesterol. Exercising and quitting smoking also help. Cholesterol naturally rises with age, so if a time machine is ever invented that could be a good bet too. If your levels are still high after trying self-treatment, a doctor can prescribe medicine to help.
How to measure: Head to your doctor and ask to get a blood panel. That will give you a detailed report on all these different levels, and comprehensive guidelines can tell you if any are too high.
Inflammation is another necessary bodily function that can sometimes go too far. It’s a fundamental immune process involving white blood cells. For example, if you cut your finger chopping veggies, an inflammatory response is in charge of telling white blood cells to go to the injury site and heal it, bringing along that familiar redness and swelling.
Sometimes, though, your own immune system can turn against you. Inflammation isn’t a particularly well studied phenomenon, but the Johns Hopkins Health Review reports it’s a common factor in several common diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease, and even cancer.
Inflammation has been linked to a stress response, so if you notice more swelling it could be a good indicator of mental health. Meditation, taking daily walks, and getting better sleep can all help you relieve stress on a daily basis. Another culprit may be your diet, and incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods can help.
How to measure: This health marker is a bit harder to quantify, but if you have too much inflammation, it may show up in your body as redness, swelling and pain around joints. Other indicators include psoriasis (dry, flaky skin), and chronic bloating.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.