Body Mass Index (BMI), or the relationship of one’s height and weight, is most often used by the medical community to determine someone’s health risk. BMI is really meant to assess the health of populations, not individuals. If a researcher wanted to assess the health of adults in Massachusetts, for example, BMI could work quite well. The problem is that it is inappropriately applied to individuals, partly because it is easy to do so as opposed to monitoring other markers that require more expensive testing and/or equipment.
There are a number of examples that call the BMI’s accuracy and usefulness into question. For instance, Tom Brady’s BMI of 27.4 and Paul Pierce’s BMI of 26.5 put them squarely in the “overweight” BMI category, which is associated with increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other health problems. Obviously, both of these athletes have a great deal of muscle mass and are in top physical shape. Would you call them “overweight?” Of course not!
On the flip side, there are numerous people who fall into the “normal weight” BMI category that can’t even climb a flight of stairs without getting winded and have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In other words, lack of muscle mass can contribute to somebody being labeled as “normal weight” even though they are actually pretty unhealthy. Some individuals with eating disorders also have “normal” BMIs, as do some formerly overweight patients who have lost weight due to diseases such as cancer or AIDS. So clearly being healthy is about more than just one’s BMI.
Instead of just focusing on one number, there are so many other factors we need to take into consideration. Measuring blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and waist-to-hip ratio are just a few ways to get a better picture of someone’s health status. Other things to look at could be an individual’s physical fitness, mental and emotional health, as well as feelings of well-being. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that one number cannot tell us everything about a person’s health and that there are many ways to define what health is.