What does it mean to be a healthy weight?
What does it mean to be a healthy weight? It's actually different things for different people. Ultimately, in my opinion, it’s the weight where you feel you're optimally well, so that you're physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
Your healthy weight is where you're at low risk of developing health problems, you're comfortable with how you look and feel, and can maintain it well without feeling in conflict between what you want to do and what you think you should do.
I'll give you an example. If we go by Body Mass Index (BMI), a healthy range is 18.5 to 24.9. But I prefer (and have preferred for the last 10 years), for my ideal weight - my most comfortable, optimal weight, and where I feel the healthiest physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I am happy with what I see in the mirror - to sit above this range.
At my heaviest, I was very feeling very unhealthy, unhappy, very depressed, and sluggish. I was in pain, I hated what I saw in the mirror, and I hated pretty much everything about myself, and had no confidence. So that definitely was not optimal for me. And, because I'm quite short, it doesn't take an awful lot of weight to go on for it to be noticeable and for it to impact on me.
At the other extreme, I was skinny, with low muscle mass. I could feel and see my ribs and when I sat down it was really uncomfortable. Driving was really uncomfortable too. I had to get a cushion to sit on in the car, and my hip bones were sticking out and my breasts had shrunk to empty sacks. So that wasn't good, either.
Closer to the top end of my healthy BMI range, I do really like what I see in the mirror, but I find it really hard to sustain. For me, that means eating less than I'm comfortable with because it's just that little bit too low. I've been there a few times, but every time I get there, I bounce back a little bit because I don't want to do what I have to do to stay there. I could stay there if I was prepared to be a bit stricter with myself but I don't want to do that.
On the flip side, I know that once I reach over my ideal weight, I start to feel less comfortable physically, and also mentally as my clothes start getting tight, and things start rubbing, and I feel more sluggish. So, optimally, I know where I prefer to stay. However, I'm outside of the ‘healthy BMI’. I'm at 25.6 to 26 BMI, but that, for me, is where I'm quite happy to stay. I'm not putting pressure on myself to go lower.
Sometimes I think maybe I could because I know that I run faster when I'm a bit lighter. If running, one of my favourite activities, is my goal, and I want to run a bit faster, then I can work hard to drop those few pounds and see if I stay there. But it's not a real priority for me, hence why I don't do it.
So, when you're thinking about what is a healthy weight for you, yes being physically healthy is really important. The BMI does get a bit of a bad rap, but it's a good screening tool for the first step in establishing whether someone is a healthy weight or not.
But, you have to look beyond that. You could be a healthy BMI but still be really unhealthy, or you could be over a healthy BMI, and be really healthy. So, for me, I'll give you a good example of how it doesn’t really matter too much for me that I am slightly over the healthy range.
During 2012-14 I actually lost a dress size, but I didn't change my weight. I was consistently weight training and running long distances and so I lost inches because my body composition was changing. I was dropping fat, which takes up more space, and I was building muscle, which takes less space. It happened gradually, over a couple of years. It happened so gradually that I didn't even notice it was happening. Then I suddenly looked and realised my shape had changed.
I was eating a lot of food, but not too much. I was eating healthy food, and the right amount for my body to be able to maintain my weight and build muscle, and I got extremely fit. Hence why I am definitely not too unhappy about being the weight that I am. I look and feel really strong and healthy, and I am strong and healthy, and with a waist measurement that is in the healthy range.
It doesn’t matter that I am slightly outside of the healthy BMI range because, to me, that's still healthy.
BMI is definitely a measure to be aware of because, as it goes up, our risk of health problems increases if our body composition has a high percentage of fat. It's a sliding scale.
The closer you get to 30, if you have a lot of body fat, the risk increases. It’s usually clear to see by looking at someone at a BMI of 30 whether that is mainly due to fat or muscle, and if it's due to fat then it's more of a concern from a risk perspective. Then, once it's over 30, it becomes more of a red flag to be aware of, as risks of cardiovascular problems and diabetes increase, as well as placing huge strain on our joints, storing up problems for the future.
However, it's not like as soon as you get to 30, that means you're unhealthy, or if you're under 30, you're healthy - it doesn't work like that. There are so many considerations.
It’s important to think about where you are on that scale, what your physical health is like, and what the risks are, in relation to that. Obviously, we need to consider risk factors. So, if you're monitoring your own blood pressure (which everybody can do now), if you're monitoring your weight regularly, if you’re checking your waist measurement regularly, and you're keeping fit, exercising as much as you're able to within the constraints of your health and your life, then you can get a good sense of where you are.
It's a very individual thing. It's really about thinking about what is right for you, it doesn't matter what the rules say, it's thinking about taking all of that into context, being aware of the facts, and thinking, where do you sit on that scale and what's right for you. Where do you want to be?
So, I hope my example gives a little bit of insight into that, that is so important not to get too hung up on the numbers, you've got to consider what's right for you. What trade-offs and compromises are you willing to make with yourself, without sacrificing your mental health and your enjoyment in life? What things are you prepared to limit or give up, and what are you not prepared to limit or give up?
When you're considering what is a healthy weight for you, remember, a healthy weight is not all about the weight.
As I said, I lost a dress size through working on my body composition, but I didn't change my weight during that time. So, it was more than about the weight - it was about what my weight consisted of. Once I dropped fat and increased muscle, my body composition changed, and my health continued to improve.
Having said that, if you have clearly got a lot of fat to lose, it is more about losing the weight, because as you lose the weight, it’s fat that you're losing. As long as you're doing some resistance work, you will maintain most of your muscle while losing weight, which means that you'll be able to maintain your energy-burning furnace once you reach your goal and, therefore, be less likely to regain it - as long as you don't return to former habits.
It's when we lose some of our muscle mass that it becomes a problem, so it’s really important that we do all we can to maintain it when losing weight. That, however, is a topic for another day.
Achieving a healthy weight is not easy, as it requires going against our bodies' natural survival mechanisms, as we are not designed to lose weight voluntarily. This is why many people struggle and give up, or end up regaining weight. It is in my opinion one of the most difficult things in life to do.
Working on our mindset so that we are able to consistently do what is required, both to lose weight, and then maintain it, as well as knowing the practical, safe and healthy things we should do, are crucial ingredients. And having a coach to help you do this is a really worthwhile investment.