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Why I'm reconsidering the idea of 'ideal weight'

I now know that I don't need to reach that magic BMI number to achieve real health improvements.
Image: Weight scale
Simply losing 5 percent of your body weight yields considerable health benefits.iStockphoto via Getty Images

Back in 1994, when I was a junior in college, I weighed about 190 pounds. I remember talking to a friend of mine about how I’d been gaining weight and needed to get things in check. “I’ll never weigh more than 200 pounds,” I told him. “That’s a line I just can’t cross.”

Fast forward to 2017 when I weighed 245 pounds after steadily gaining weight during the ensuing years. At various points in my life, I’ve made usually half-hearted attempts at weight loss. What I said each time was, “My goal is to get under 200 pounds.” There was no reason for that target aside from the fact that I had some vague, romantic notion that getting under that threshold would make me feel better, not only physically, but also psychologically and emotionally.

With about six weeks left in my year-long project to adhere to the federal Physical Activity Guidelines and Dietary Guidelines, which I undertook with the support of the Science & Research Team of the American Council on Exercise, I tried to make a push to shed some more weight after sitting on a plateau for the previous month or so. I looked for ways to cut calories, but the primary changes to my lifestyle were the addition of a third resistance-training workout each week and an increase in the intensity of my cardio sessions.

Soon after making those changes, I started getting severe headaches. Headaches, usually trigged by tension in my shoulders and neck, have long been a problem for me, though they had largely subsided as I lost weight and became more active. I was also extremely fatigued all the time. It was as if my body was rebelling, or at least warning me to back off.

So why would I expect to be able to achieve a weight I last maintained 24 years ago when my life was completely different in nearly every way?

Many textbooks and websites offer equations to calculate “ideal body weight.” I put my information (gender, height and frame size) into a few online calculators and the numbers I received ranged from 148 to 170 pounds. Anyone who has ever seen me knows this is absurd. I would guess I last weighed 170 pounds early in high school and 148 pounds in middle school.

Clearly, there is more to the determination of “ideal body weight” than gender, height and frame size. But what considerations should you have when setting your goal?

Consider Your Health

According the body mass index (BMI) charts, I would need to weigh 163 pounds to move from the “overweight” to the “normal” category. But, do I need to reach that weight to achieve real health improvements? No!

Simply losing 5 percent of your body weight yields considerable health benefits. For me, that meant going from 245 pounds to 233 pounds, a goal I achieved in the first six weeks of my lifestyle change.

I achieved a number of the health benefits associated with losing 5% of my body weight, including:

  • Decreased risk of sudden death from heart disease or stroke
  • Lowered risk of diabetes through improved blood sugar control
  • Reduced risk of certain cancers through reduced inflammation
  • Helped prevent angina (chest pain cause by insufficient oxygen reaching the heart)
  • Lowered cholesterol
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol and decreased triglycerides
  • Reduced aches and pains
  • Improved mobility
  • Easier breathing
  • Increased sex drive
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced the risk or severity of symptoms of sleep apnea
  • Potentially reduced the need for medication
  • Improved mood

Consider Physical Function

This was one of the biggest obstacles for me. While I truly grew to love the increase in my physical-activity levels, I eventually reached a threshold where the wear and tear and overall fatigue outweighed the benefits. I learned when to back off, and how to see that line between challenging myself and overdoing it. Ultimately, exercise was meant to enhance my health, not make every day painful. I refrained from pushing myself too far just to reach a somewhat abstract weight-loss goal in favor of maintaining a comfortable day-to-day quality of life.

Consider Your Mental and Emotional Health

Another thing I realized as I tried to squeeze more physical activity into an already busy schedule was that exercise was becoming a chore again. I have a tendency to feel guilty when I miss workouts (or overeat, or stay up too late or get too stressed out — I’m working on it!). I was approaching the end of my year-long project and getting really upset with myself for “failing” in my quest to up my game. Pushing myself at the expense of my mental and emotional well-being was once again taking away from the way in which exercise was supposed to enhance my life. I took a step back and recalibrated my goals and expectations so that exercise could once again be something that improved my mood and made me feel better about myself.

Consider Your Current Lifestyle

Back in 1994, I was a 21-year-old college student with a dramatically different lifestyle than the one I have now — for better and worse. Back then, I was playing rugby three or four days a week, working out at the gym once in a while and accumulating countless steps walking all over campus. I was also eating all-you-can-eat brunches every weekend at the campus dining hall, staying up extremely late most nights and drinking more Natural Light than I’d like to admit. Now, I’m more conscious about what I eat, drink very little alcohol and get to the gym or hiking trails most days. I also have a sedentary job and have to intentionally fit exercise into my schedule since it’s not a normal part of my day.

So why would I expect to be able to achieve a weight I last maintained 24 years ago when my life was completely different in nearly every way?

The lesson here is to be fair to yourself in terms of what you can reasonably maintain. Setting unachievable goals based on a so-called “ideal weight” is the first step toward failure. Instead, be honest with yourself when setting initial goals, and don’t be afraid to revisit your goals on occasion to make sure they’re in line with not only your current lifestyle, but also your physical, mental and emotional needs.

I’m honored that NBC News BETTER invited me to share my journey with you through the completion of The Lifestyle Project and beyond, and now I want to hear from you.

Do you have any tips to share? Tell me about them. Have questions about my journey? Ask me on Twitter or follow me on Instagram.


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