Weight is just one measure of a person's fitness level
Carrie Yusko hears it all the time. “I can’t go to the gym yet. I weigh too much.”
A certified personal trainer and co-owner of Polar Fitness in Spotsylvania County, Yusko herself never steps on a scale. She gauges her health and fitness by the way her clothes fit and her energy level.
Yet in a nation where obesity rates continue to climb and are linked to health horrors from heart attacks to diabetes, weight looms as an unnecessary stumbling block for many people.
“The scale’s like a calendar. It’s just a number,” said Dr. George Nowacek, a local gynecologist who also counsels patients on weight loss and fitness.
Nowacek knows what he’s talking about—not only as a trained physician but also as a person who dropped 100 pounds and drastically improved his health. He now teaches strenuous indoor cycling classes in his free time.
Still, Nowacek is considered overweight according to the body mass index, a measure of weight related to height. He said the scale is not the best measure of either health or fitness.
“Is the goal to be a certain color on a BMI chart, or is the goal to be free of disease?” said Nowacek, who, after dropping weight, found he no longer needed to take medication for high blood pressure or diabetes.
Local insurance agent Gordon Combs found that his health and well-being did a complete turnaround after he shed just 15 pounds working out in his basement gym and watching portion sizes.
Still overweight on a BMI chart, Combs described his newfound health benefits like this: “I can tie my shoes without holding my breath. I can walk with my wife without gasping for air. I am sleeping much better, [and] my wife stated my snoring has greatly diminished in duration and intensity.”
Also, Combs said, he feels better both mentally and physically.
The issue of weight caught considerable attention earlier this year when a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded slightly overweight people had a longer life expectancy than those of normal weight.
“My takeaway from that was that BMI is not the whole story,” Nowacek said about the study. “If we focus solely on the poundage, you’re missing the salient point.”
He mentioned a person of normal weight who could be considered “skinny fat” because of a lack of cardiovascular fitness. The study found longer life expectancy for people with a BMI in the 25–30 range, or the first tier of overweight.
“Does that mean everybody should be 25–30? No. People should be fit,” Nowacek said.
AN Rx FOR EXERCISE
No physician would advise a patient to be sedentary and overweight, but a person’s individual weight is not necessarily the best measure of health or fitness, said Fredericksburg cardiologist Dr. Robert Vranian.
“I think the whole idea of body weight is a broad brush,” Vranian said. “BMI can be very deceptive.”
Take, for example, a running back. Those football players tend to be compact and extremely muscular. On a BMI chart, they often register in the obese category.
“What I tell my patients is, it’s not so much how much you weigh, it’s percent body fat to muscle mass,” Vranian said. “That should be fairly reasonable.”
Certain people who have what is known in medical circles as metabolic syndrome—fat around the belly, low “good” cholesterol, high blood pressure triglycerides and blood sugar—are at higher risk for health problems related to weight.
Vranian said the answer is not necessarily daily weigh-ins, though.
“I think that compulsivity can have an adverse effect,” he said. “People who worry about their weight or weigh every day, it can become a burden or an obsession.”
What Vranian recommends is a well-balanced, Mediterranean style diet based on lots of produce, whole grains and fish and using olive oil in place of butter. He also advises three to five days a week of moderate exercise such as a brisk walk.
“There’s no medication a physician could prescribe that has the benefits of exercise as far as improving blood pressure, improving lipids, improving emotions, reducing body weight,” he said. “It has so much value, and it’s pleasantly habituating.”
That means once you get into the exercise habit, you’ll miss it if you fall off the wagon.
‘THERE’S NO DOWNSIDE’
Staying positive in the face of shrieking diet ads and impossibly perfect swimsuit models also is important. The motto at Polar Fitness is “make the most of the body you were blessed with.”
Carrie and Jason Yusko, the husband and wife team who own Polar Fitness, tell clients to find a goal other than weight loss in order to stick with a workout plan.
“Try to focus on quality of life,” said Jason Yusko, who aims also to set a good long-term example for his 4- and 9-year-old children. “It’s not just immediate. I want to be able to go and play soccer with my grandkids. I want to be able to get on the floor and wrestle with them.”
Combs said he was discouraged for years by BMI charts telling him he needed to lose 50 pounds to be in the normal weight category.
“I kept reading all this stuff about my perfect body size is supposed to be 145–150,” said Combs, who weighed about 200 pounds. “I was shocked at how well I felt after losing 10 pounds.”
A focus on balanced eating and regular exercise will pay off no matter what the scale says, according to Vranian.
“The main thing is to try to be happy. You can be happy if you feel good,” he said.
For most people, feeling good is possible through healthy eating and regular exercise.
“If you do these things, there’s no downside to it,” Vranian said. “It’s just a matter of doing it, but it takes time to break the habit. But if you make that resolution, you can make it happen.”
SIDEBAR: FOCUS LESS ON SCALE, MORE ON HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
George Nowacek hates to run.
Yet a few years ago, at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 280 pounds, the local gynecologist had developed Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
He was able to shed 100 pounds and no longer needed diabetes or blood pressure medication, thanks in large part to a devotion to indoor cycling. The classes on stationary bicycles feature varying intensity and are known to torch calories and rev up metabolism.
“Because I liked it, it made me happy, and I kept doing it,” said Nowacek, who not only takes the classes but also teaches at American Family Fitness in Spotsylvania County.
While losing weight and fitting into a smaller pair of pants can be a side benefit to regularly exercising, what keeps people motivated is finding something they enjoy and feeling better both emotionally and physically, said Jason Yusko, co-owner with his wife Carrie of Polar Fitness in Spotsylvania County.
“Weight should never really be your main focus, unless the doctor is telling you that you need to lose 30 pounds because you’re going to have a heart attack,” Yusko said. “Getting out there and having fun and trying new things and experiencing new things, that should be your goal. Losing weight is the icing on cake.”
Maybe not the literal cake, because conventional wisdom says processed carbohydrates like cake and icing cause spikes in blood sugar and cravings for more, calorie-laden sweets. When Nowacek counsels patients who want to lose weight, he reminds them to aim for an overall healthy lifestyle.
That lifestyle, said Fredericksburg cardiologist Dr. Robert Vranian, must include at least three days a week of a 25-minute bout of exercise. He tells his patients, “aim for five, never less than three.”
And despite a weight industry that rakes in more than $60 billion yearly in the United States, losing and gaining weight repeatedly hurts not only a person’s self-esteem. A recent study found yo–yo dieting raised the risk for cardiovascular disease in older women.
Instead of focusing on the number on the scale, Yusko said, find a motivator such as running a local race or having enough energy to play tag with your kids after work.
“Do you really want to just go home and turn on the TV and watch those same shows, or do you want to live life? If you live life, the weight will take care of itself.”
Donya Currie is a freelance writer in Stafford County who regularly contributes to Healthy Living and other health-related publications, including the AARP Bulletin. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.