I am frequently asked: Being overweight – how bad is it for you? What we found when researching the RealAge Test not only surprised me, but made me reassess some assumptions I had long had.
The topic keeps coming back, too. Some new studies have come out in the last year suggesting that the best overall weight might be a little higher than we thought.
Being obese is associated with a host of other factors we look at in the RealAge Test. These include blood pressure, cholesterol, many dietary factors, exercise, and to a lesser extent, sleep and income. In all of those instances, being obese is bad – obese people are more likely to be on the wrong side of all of those factors. All of those factors make your RealAge older. So, if you look at just the obesity, and forget about all the other factors obesity is associated with, is obesity itself still a risk factor for heart disease? Does being obese make your RealAge older at all?
That was the question I wrestled with, and there are lots of arguments, many based on the research, that argue for and against that point. Once people are really obese – and by that I mean a body mass index above 35 or even 40 – then the answer is yes, it really is bad to be obese. As you get to the super-obese level (50 and above), the risk increases dramatically. (Calculate your BMI.)
(A short aside – is BMI the best way to look at obesity? It’s clear that there are people for whom BMI is misleading. I have measured body fat percentage on people with BMI levels above 30 and found less than 7% fat. There are people who really are big boned, and some who are very muscular. Muscle is much more dense than fat. Measuring waist size looks at abdominal (omental) fat, the kind that is metabolically active and is strongly associated with heart disease risk. They are both important. We use both in calculating the RealAge test, so a person with high BMI but small waist size isn’t penalized.)
But what about the majority of people with a BMI that puts them into the overweight or mildly obese range? Imagine a person with normal blood pressure, good cholesterol levels, who eats well, exercises regularly, sleeps normally – in short, is optimal for everything except weight. What does the literature tell us about people like that?
The answer is that they are almost, almost as healthy as can be. In fact, if you compare an overweight person who does everything healthy to a thin person who doesn’t, the answer is often that it’s better to be overweight and healthy than thin and unhealthy.
For that reason, I don’t really emphasize weight reduction. I advise better eating (see my recent blog on the Mediterranean diet for one example of a healthy diet), more regular exercise, and good sleeping habits. These things are under your control. Improving these makes you healthier, and that’s really the goal. In most instances, it helps weight too. But as we’ve seen, weight isn’t the most important goal.
Another aside: I’ve had smokers tell me that fear of gaining weight keeps them from trying to quit. But trust me – I’ve done the research. The small harm from gaining weight means your RealAge getting older by a few weeks or maybe months, but the benefit of quitting smoking means your RealAge getting younger by years. It’s the #1 thing you can do for a younger RealAge. There’s really no comparison.
Check back next week for more on what you can do to reduce your RealAge. And take the test, if you haven’t already.