One of the best ways to predict whether you will enjoy a long and healthy life is surprisingly simple.
All it takes is a tape measure.
So say a number of recent studies, which all point to waist circumference as the strongest indicator of risk for a bevy of serious health problems.
Women whose waistlines exceed 35 inches and men who stretch the tape at more than 40 inches suffer from significantly more heart disease and diabetes than adults of the same age who keep their waistlines trim. They also have a greater risk of high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, arthritis, erectile dysfunction and emotional problems such as depression.
The link between waist circumference and serious disease remains strong even in people with normal weight or body mass index. The bigger the belly, the greater the risk at any weight.
In one recent study of males aged 50 to 75 years, men whose waist sizes were greater than 40 inches had three times the risk of diabetes, three times the risk of high blood pressure and more than double the risk of erectile dysfunction as men whose waist measured 36 inches or less.
Another study showed that among women with normal weight for their height, those whose waist circumference topped 35 inches were nearly twice as likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol than normal-weight women with a normal waistline. The same study showed that a bulging waistline in women who were overweight but not obese also increased the risk of diabetes four-fold.
Measuring waist circumference is an easy way to assess how your body stores excess fat. It turns out that carrying extra weight around in the middle - the so-called apple shape - is worse for your health than piling it on around the hips and thighs, which is sometimes called the pear shape.
So are you an apple or a pear?
Get out a tape measure and place it evenly around your bare abdomen at its narrowest point. The tape should be snug, but not too tight against your skin. Make your measurement while breathing out normally - not while sucking in your stomach.
If your waist circumference is more than 35 inches, or 40 inches if you are a man, you have some work to do to lower your risk of poor health. Your best bet is to follow a healthy weight loss diet while putting more exercise into your daily routine.
Despite the claims you may hear in commercials, no diet or exercise program can zero in on belly fat. Sit-ups and other exercises that strengthen abdominal muscles may help you look thinner, but improving muscle tone in your midsection doesn't specifically burn the fat that's putting you at risk.
That takes time, and it happens when you make a daily habit of doing active things you enjoy, while cutting down on the calories you consume. The good news is that when you get serious about losing weight the first fat to disappear is usually the padding that's filling out your midsection. Why not get started on a healthy waistline today?
- Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County Health Officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.