Ask someone to tell you their mobile phone number, their National Insurance number or even their grandparents old landline number and more often than not, these will be recited back to you without much thought. Some numbers just seem to stick. Over time and through constant repetition, they have engrained themselves into the depths of our long-term memory.
Ask that same person if they knew their blood pressure, cholesterol or even their current weight though, and you may be surprised to learn that they can’t recall that vital health information quite so easily, if at all. Not knowing the exact figures of each can be excused as these numbers are fluid, meaning that they can change – sometimes by the week, sometimes the day and in some cases, even by the hour.
Nevertheless, there are certain numbers which are crucial indicators of our overall health. In an age where the risk of lifestyle-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes are so high, it would be beneficial to know these numbers, too.
Joline Heo, a Doctor of Medicine with Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation, stated that disease prevention can be a numbers game. It can often be controlled and we can even take steps to lower elevated numbers, before our health becomes compromised.
There are 5 key health markers that we should all have a better understanding of:
1. BLOOD PRESSURE
The prevalence of high blood pressure and its association with cardiac diseases, such as heart attack and stroke are often discussed, but what exactly is blood pressure and what is its role within the body?
The heart sits at the centre of our circulatory system, transporting oxygen, nutrients and hormones to different parts of the body. Its role is to pump freshly oxygenated blood to remote areas of the body, including the limbs and the head. To do this, a certain amount of pressure (or force) is required, so that the blood can reach those extremities and still have the power to return back to the heart. Blood pressure is defined by the BHF as ‘a measure of the force of blood exerted onto the artery walls.’ It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and is given as 2 figures.
- systolic pressure – the pressure exerted when your heart pumps blood out
- diastolic pressure – the pressure exerted when your heart rests between beats (refilling stage)
2. BLOOD CHOLESTEROL
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells throughout the body. We need some cholesterol to produce hormones, vitamins, and substances that aid digestion. While cholesterol is needed for our body to function properly, high levels can have serious consequences.
Cholesterol comes from two sources, the first being the liver. In fact, our liver makes all of the cholesterol we actually need. The remainder, comes from external sources of dietary cholesterol including meat, poultry and dairy products.
These same foods can also be high in saturated fats. These fats can cause our liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.
There are two types of cholesterol: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is considered the bad cholesterol and HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is considered the good. Too much of the bad, or not enough of the good, raises the risk of cholesterol slowly building up on the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain. This accumulation on the artery walls, causes the passage way through which the blood flows to become narrower. This, in turn, causes an increase in the pressure that forces the blood through these constricted vessels.
Have you ever held your hand over the end of a garden hose pipe and felt the water pressure building up? Or think about your central heating at home. This closed system warms the entire house but when the water pressure is too low, the radiators furthest from the boiler may not get warm. On the other hand, if pressure is too high, it may cause a pipe to burst.
Similarly, as LDL cholesterol builds up on the inside of our arteries, it can (over time) cause a blockage which may lead to coronary heart disease and stroke.
3. BLOOD GLUCOSE
When we consume foods, in particular complex carbohydrates (such as potato, peas, beans, wholegrains, etc.), our digestive system begins the process of breaking these foods down into glucose (sugar). That glucose then slowly gets released into the bloodstream to give us a constant supply of energy. As our blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces insulin – a hormone that prompts the cells of our body (in particular our muscles) to absorb the blood sugar either for energy, or for storage.
Simple carbohydrates (or refined sugars) enter the blood stream at a rate much quicker than that of its more complex cousin and can cause blood sugar levels to spike. This signals the pancreas to release excessive amounts of insulin to cope with demand. This spike tends to be followed by a sugar crash as the insulin goes into overdrive, resulting over time, in lower levels of blood sugar (hypoglycaemia).
Type II Diabetes is caused either when the insulin released into our body is no longer able to perform its role effectively, or the tissues of the body don’t respond to the available insulin as they should (insulin resistance). Consuming large amounts of dietary sugar contributes towards this, as it causes glucose levels in the blood to remain high (hyperglycaemia).
Whilst we have no control over risk factors such as our age, family history or ethnicity, in terms of disease development, there are a number of modifiable risk factors including: a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, being overweight/obese, smoking, overconsumption of the recommended alcohol limit and getting poor sleep.
4. BODY MASS INDEX (BMI)
The body mass index is a measurement scale that gauges an individual’s ideal weight, in relation to their height. It is generally made up of 5 categories: underweight, healthy weight, overweight, obese, and extremely (morbidly) obese. The simple version of the BMI calculation is weight (kg) divided by height² (m). From this calculation, a score then places an individual into one of the five weight categories previously mentioned.
According to the World Health Organisation, obesity and being overweight is most simply defined as having too much body fat – so much so, that it ‘presents a risk to health’. Whilst the BMI scale doesn’t directly measure how much body fat an individual has, the general consensus is that it is a reliable indicator of what an ideal weight range should be, based on an individual’s height. Bear in mind though, that a high BMI score may be observed in an individual with an athletic or muscular disposition, this is due to the weight of lean muscle tissue, compared to that of adipose tissue (body fat).
The location of an individual’s body fat is also important. That is why it is crucial for GP’s, clinicians and health professionals to measure BMI in conjunction with the waist measurement, as a high BMI partnered with a high waist measurement can reliably indicate whether an individual is carrying too much additional weight, particularly around the mid-section.
5. WAIST MEASUREMENT
To determine whether or not an individual is carrying too much adipose tissue around the mid-section of the body, there are various clinical waist measurement options available. The waist-to-hip ratio and the waist-to-height measurements are the two most commonly used. An ideal waist-to-hip ratio for men is 0.9:1 and for women, 0.8:1. A score greater than 1 for the waist measurement can indicate that there is too much body fat being stored in this area of the body.
Additional weight carried in the abdominal area of the body can have serious health implications and is of particular concern, due to its proximity to vital organs. Unfortunately, without a CT scan it is not always possible to determine whether fat in this area is subcutaneous (external) or visceral (internal).
Subcutaneous fat is the fat that can be felt just under the skin and is usually soft to the touch. This type of fat does not typically present us with greater risk when it comes to conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is the fat that surrounds our organs (including our heart) and can sometimes cause complications to our health.
Importantly, an individual may be presenting with both a healthy BMI score and a good waist-to-hip ratio but still have a high percentage of internal visceral fat. This is known as sarcopenic obesity, or ‘skinny fat’ and it highlights the importance of conducting all 5 of the clinical tests together, as part of an in-depth health assessment. This, alongside a lifestyle assessment questionnaire, can more accurately interpret an individual’s health behaviour in connection to their physical examination results.
If an individual presents with high scores on 2 or more of the above clinical tests, a GP appointment would be highly recommended.
If an individual is not presenting any serious symptoms, yet scored highly on any of the above clinical tests, the initial advice from a health professional should be to review their current lifestyle.
Aim to eat a healthy, varied and balanced diet inclusive of 5 fruits and vegetables per day (minimum). Also include the three macronutrients with each meal – carbs, proteins (animal or plant-based) and healthy fats. Try to reduce your intake of saturated fats and simple sugars and drink 1.5-2L of water per day to stay well hydrated.
2. Physical Activity
The government guidelines are to complete 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week (RPE scale 5-8). Research suggests that even 20 minutes a day can significantly improve health. This can be either cardiovascular exercise (for example brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling) or resistance exercise, including weight training (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell), bodyweight training (yoga, calisthenics), or a combination of the two. Importantly, try to reduce sedentary behaviour by following the 55:5 rule – that is moving for 5 minutes every hour throughout the day, especially if your job involves sitting at a desk.
3. Rest & Sleep
Prioritise rest, relaxation and sleep. This will not only improve psychological health, but other physiological variables too. When our bodies are well rested, they function more efficiently and are less likely to operate in a state of heightened stress. Moreover, those with healthy biomarkers tend to enjoy a better quality and quantity of sleep.
4. Alcohol Consumption
Some studies have suggested that red wine can reduce the risk of heart disease and whilst small amounts of alcohol may not have a major impact on our overall health, overconsumption (particularly over consecutive days) can have more serious consequences, including weight gain. Some potential reasons for this include the ‘empty calories’ of alcohol. This means that it holds very little nutritional value. Additionally, as a primary energy source, it is used by the body first and any excess glucose is then stored as fat. Excess alcohol can also impair judgement when it comes to eating, causing us to consume more than we would, typically.
The smoking of cigarettes can negatively increase the level of stress within in our body. It can cause a number of serious negative reactions including; increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscle tension and constriction of blood vessels. Smoking is also the leading cause of heart attacks in people under the age of 60. As smoking requires the inhalation of a toxic vapor, it has a profound negative impact on our respiratory system, most notably in the lungs.
There are so many ways in which we can support our overall health. Knowing our numbers makes it that much easier!