The scales can’t paint your complete health picture. Dietitian Clarice Hebblethwaite helps you work out whether you’re in top form or a tailspin — in 10 minutes!
Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes — the svelte models we see in magazines don’t always represent a healthy weight. In reality, being a little heavier and having more muscle mass can actually be healthier than being slim and carrying most of your weight as body fat.
We often measure our health against the obvious numbers: how many kilos we weigh, how far the tape measure stretches around our limbs, and how high our blood pressure and levels of cholesterol climb. But your body’s smart enough to let you know whether you’re looking after it (or not) in a few other ways — you just have to keep an eye out for the signs.
This quick test will give you a sense of how your engine’s running and, if necessary, steer you back onto the road towards optimal health and wellbeing!
Check these ?tell-tale signs… think about how you’re looking and feeling, then give yourself an A, B or C in each category.
Eyes, hair, skin and nails
The whites of your eyes should look white (not yellow or bloodshot). We all see the odd floater or feel a twitch now and then, but if you notice more than that, have your eyes checked. Any inflammation in or around the eye needs medical attention.
Is your hair dry or brittle? Straw-like strands can mean your diet is lacking in iron, protein or essential fats. Excessive washing and drying, harsh hair treatments, regular exposure to chlorinated or salty water, and even excess sun can also leave hair lacklustre. If you’ve been finding more hair in your brush than usual, see a GP — accelerated hair loss can be a sign of poor thyroid function.
Cracks at the corners of the mouth can signal inadequate iron or vitamin B2, and if you bruise very easily, you may need more vitamin C or other nutrients that affect blood clotting. We should all regularly check our moles for changes and show any to a GP.
Healthy fingernails are strong and slightly pink. Pale or concave nails can indicate a lack of iron, and thick yellow nails can point to a fungal infection. If you see a change in colour, shape or texture, especially inflammation around the nails, see a doctor.
A. My eyes are clear, my hair is thick and glossy, my skin glows, and my nails are strong. Great!
B. My appearance could do with a lift, so I need to tweak my diet and lifestyle. For bright eyes and luminous skin, I’ll eat plenty of iron-rich foods, such as lean beef, fish and chicken plus spinach or kale. For healthy skin (and shiny hair), I also need omega-3 fats, so I’ll add delicious oil-rich fish, such as salmon or tuna, to my menu two to three times a week.
C. I look as flat as I feel. My diet needs an overhaul, and I’ll ask my GP to check my iron levels, too.
Drinking water helps you think straight and feel energised; in fact, without H2O, our organs can’t function properly. To work out whether or not you’re well hydrated, be alert to symptoms of dehydration: headaches, dry mouth, thirst and dark urine. (Urine should be the colour of champagne, not apple juice.)
Many popular drinks (hello tea and coffee) are diuretic, meaning they make us urinate frequently, reducing the level of fluids in our body. Cola and alcohol are other well-known culprits. Try swapping some of these diuretic drinks for hydrating water in the form of herbal tea or fruit infusions. (See Refresher course for some virtually kilojoule-free ideas!)
A. I usually drink six to eight large glasses of water every day. I’m happily hydrated!
B. I occasionally forget to drink water and should definitely be sipping more throughout the day, especially when it’s this hot! I’ll swap my afternoon coffee for a hydrating herbal tea, too.
C. The water in my cappuccino isn’t enough? All right, I’ll keep a water bottle on my desk and in my bag, and aim to get through at least two bottles a day.
Changes in hearing can have a gradual onset, so you may be unaware of them. If you’re struggling to hear, sounds are muffled, or friends have begun to notice that your hearing has deteriorated, discuss this with your health practitioner.
A. I’m lucky — I haven’t noticed any hearing problems so far.
B. I heard that people have been questioning my hearing!
C. What was that? I think it’s time I had a hearing test!
Your bowels should move daily and easily with little wind and no bloating, nausea or reflux. If you’re bothered by these kinds of problems, or by constipation or diarrhoea, something may be stopping your bowel, liver or gall bladder (or a combination of these) from working properly.
If your bowel movements have become irregular, focus on fibre. Swap white bread and white rice for wholegrain or brown varieties, and add psyllium husks, LSA mix, nuts or chia seeds to your cereal. Fruit and vegetables are full of fibre, which concentrates mostly in their skins, so pile half of your plate with vegies or salad, and snack on fresh fruit, such as apples, pears and berries.
You need to increase the fibre in your diet gradually, otherwise you run the risk of aggravating any constipation. Remember to drink plenty of water, too, as this helps keep things moving.
If you suffer from troublesome wind, or uncomfortable or painful bloating, FODMAPs could be to blame. These carbohydrates can be hard for the bowel to absorb and wreak havoc on your system if you have a sensitivity to them. Onion, wheat, milk, lentils, garlic and stone fruits are among the worst offenders, so choose your foods with care and pay attention to any tummy upset. Doing this will help you identify the triggers.
To find out how to manage the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
A. My bowel movements are usually regular and normal.
B. I experience the occasional bout of bloating. I’ll increase my fibre intake and drink more water.
C. One or more of these issues is normal for me: excessive wind, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea. I need to discover the cause.
Abdominal fat that sits around your middle and surrounds the vital organs threatens your heart health — and the more belly fat you have, the more serious the health risks. This internal fat can send cholesterol levels soaring, putting you at risk of potentially fatal heart disease and stroke.
Visceral fat is more dangerous than the fat on the rest of the body, because studies show that it promotes the production of hormones that make it hard to control blood-sugar levels — and unstable levels of blood sugar can trigger type 2 diabetes.
Calculate your body-mass index (BMI)
Being either too light or too heavy can increase your chances of ill health. Your BMI is a measure of your weight in relation to your height. (Find a BMI calculator here.)
You may be aware that a healthy BMI ranges from 20 to 25, but the latest research shows that being a little heavier (and maintaining that weight) can benefit our health as we age. For people aged 70 and over, a BMI of 20 to 30 is best.
Check your body fat
Your BMI doesn’t indicate how much of your body is fat, muscle, bone or water. Check these two numbers to find out whether you carry too much abdominal fat:
1. Waist circumference
To determine your girth, wrap a tape measure around your middle at the level of your navel. Make sure that the tape is comfortably snug and that you’re exhaling when you note the measurement. For a woman, a healthy waist circumference is no more than 80cm; a man’s should be no larger than 94cm.
2. Waist-to-hip ratio
For optimal health, your waist should be smaller than your hips, otherwise you could be carrying excess visceral fat. Measure your waist and hips (the widest part), then divide the waist measure by the hips measure. You’re aiming for a number under 0.8.
To lose visceral fat, you have to move. Spot exercises, such as sit-ups, target only one area. They work specific muscles, but they don’t eliminate internal fat. Aim to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a day, and include strength training (weight-bearing exercise, such as push-ups, lunges and squats).
Research reveals that training with weights or resistance bands, or against your own body weight, can increase muscle mass and reduce body fat. So if you don’t include strength exercises in your routine, now’s the time to start.
Of course, food affects your body shape, too, but avoid highly restrictive diets. Countless studies show that once you forbid certain foods, you lower your chances of losing weight for life. To manage your weight, watch portion sizes and picture the ideal plate when serving meals.
Test your flexibility
Can you move every which way? Can you twist your torso and look behind you? You can test your range of movement in a variety of ways at the gym, but here’s an easy way to check: Sit down with your legs stretched out in front of you and place your feet flat against a wall. Now reach forwards and try to touch the wall. The distance between your fingers and the wall — the shorter the better — is a measure of your flexibility.
Palms are on wall
Palms are on wall
Fingers touch wall
Fingers touch wall
Fingers are 1-12cm away
Fingers are 1-10cm away
Fingers are more than 13cm away
Fingers are more than 11cm away
Check your resting heart rate
The best time to take your pulse is in the morning, before you get out of bed and start to move.
Use your index and middle fingers to find the pulse on the inside of your wrist on the thumb side, and count the beats for one minute. As a rule, health experts consider 60 to 80 beats a minute a normal resting heart rate, but a count closer to 60 is a better result. The lower your resting heart rate, the lower your risks of cardiovascular disease and death from other conditions.
A. I passed all these tests with flying colours. I’m in good health.
B. I exercise on most days, but there’s room for improvement. Paying more attention to my portion sizes would also help.
C. I really need to review my diet and get moving – stat!
So how did you do? All As? Congratulations! If you gave yourself a few Bs and Cs, consider whether making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle would nudge you in the right direction, or whether now’s the time to seek professional advice and have a complete health check.