It’s New Year’s resolution time again, which means you can expect health food to disappear from the shelves and the gyms to be packed. This annual ritual follows one of the most common (and commonly joked about) resolutions — to lose weight.

Weight is a good shorthand for health, since people living a healthy lifestyle typically have a lower weight. There are also health risks associated with obesity that can make weight loss a healthy goal if your doctor suggests it. Added to that, aiming to lose a specific amount of weight fits one of our tips for keeping in your resolution — having a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goal.

But as with most things in health, you can’t draw a one-to-one parallel that easily. Just because you’re not the “perfect weight” or size, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhealthy. In fact, there are many factors that more accurately allow you to measure your health, and focusing too much on your weight can lead to a number of unhealthy outcomes.

Weight Isn’t a Good Measure of Health

You may have heard, “weight is just a number,” and this is mostly true. While extreme weights can point toward an unhealthy situation, it’s certainly not the most accurate reading. We touch on this in our article on the BMI scale and why it’s not accurate, but this primarily is due to the BMI scale’s use of weight. The scale uses weight as a simple measurement, as though all pounds are the same. It doesn’t take into account body shape or what physical attributes make up that overall number. Most notably is the comparison between fat and muscle. Muscle is denser than fat, meaning an extremely toned and muscular person may weigh the same as someone who is overweight. This doesn’t work in a black or white framing, either. A person can have some stomach fat with strong muscles underneath, and this can make the scale have them not losing weight, even as they become leaner.

Working with your doctor or a trainer to find more personalized fitness goals will probably be more useful to you.

So, if weight isn’t a good measure of health, what is? Well, as we alluded to earlier, there are many different ways you can go about it. We suggest talking to your doctor, since several factors are things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. If you’re looking for a measurement of fitness, there are some general targets you can aim for, but working with your doctor or a trainer to find more personalized goals will probably be more useful to you. In fact, one study found that participants who showed metabolic and fitness signs of being healthy had the same mortality rate, regardless of their weight or obesity status. Finally, if you’re looking for body shape measurements that can more accurately determine body fat, we’ve suggested waist-to-hip ratio in the past, though working with your doctor to determine your body fat and putting it into context is probably the right thing to do.

Too Much Focus on Weight Can Be Unhealthy

Not only is weight not an accurate measure of how healthy you are, but by putting too much attention on the number on the scale, you can put yourself at some serious health risks. Prime among these is the risk of eating disorders. The focus on weight loss at all costs can lead to people losing weight in extremely unhealthy and even dangerous ways. This is especially dangerous if the person losing weight had been considered overweight previously, as the risk signs may be overlooked or even praised if the focus is too firmly on weight loss.

There are more benign risks beyond the outright dangerous effects of focusing on weight loss. If your goal is to lose weight, not be healthier, you may turn to a fad diet that promises to help you lose weight fast. These rapid weight loss diets can often fail, not only because they’re often unsustainable, but because they’re unhealthy. Eventually, you’ll start to see your body react to this unhealthy diet. As we’ve maintained many times on the Shop & Enroll blog, the best diet isn’t a diet. It’s a healthy lifestyle complete with balanced and healthy foods that you are able to maintain.

Changing your mindset to focus on being healthier and enjoying the process of getting to that healthier lifestyle can make your healthier lifestyle more sustainable in the long term.

Eating a healthy diet or living a healthy lifestyle may feel great, but if you’re focused on weight loss and not losing weight (or not losing it fast enough) you may become discouraged and give up on your diet all together. Instead, changing your mindset to focus on being healthier and enjoying the process of getting to that healthier lifestyle (learn to enjoy cooking healthy dinners and make workouts fun) can make your healthier lifestyle more sustainable in the long term. If weight loss comes with this, that’s a nice bonus. Ultimately, you’re healthier, and that’s what’s important.

Weight Loss Isn’t Always Realistic or Good

Weight is deeply personal, and by this, we mean that the need and ability to lose weight varies by each person. As we note in our article on senior weight gain, there are times when gaining weight is actually the healthy thing to do, especially if it’s healthy weight through muscle.

Genetics can account for about 66 to 70 percent of the influence on our BMIs.

Weight loss can be very difficult for many people, especially when factors outside of their control interfere. Sure, diet and sedentary lifestyles can play their part, but that’s not all. For example, genetics play an outsized influence on our weight, accounting for about 66 to 70 percent of the influence on our BMIs. Genetics aren’t the sole definer of your weight, though. Economics can also play a major role in your weight, too. People struggling to make ends meet often turn to less expensive foods, which also happen to be unhealthy and calorie-laden. By the same token, lower-income areas tend to have fewer grocery stores or food options, known as food deserts, meaning that they’re limited to unhealthy food options or fast food. Of course, these are only two factors that can be outside your control and there are many others, from health conditions to prescription medications. It’s worth remembering that weight loss isn’t always possible or easy, with some saying long-term weight loss may be virtually impossible for some.

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But that’s all the more reason why it’s important to look at your health beyond the scale of weight. It’s inaccurate, unhealthy, and extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, for some. Weight can act as a shorthand for health, but we have to remember that it’s not the end-all-be-all of health, and that’s an important context to maintain. So, when you’re working on your New Year’s resolution, don’t forget to keep your eye on the real prize — being healthier!

Further Reading

The New York Times — Better to Be Fat and Fit Than Skinny and Unfit
CNET — Body recomposition: How to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time