There are several different ways to tell if you are overweight or obese, the quickest of which is a long hard look in the mirror. However, simply looking yourself over is sometimes not enough to tell if you are at increased risk of any health problems because of your weight and even the standard measure of obesity in the UK – body mass index (BMI) – has its flaws.
While the BMI measurement has been shown by studies to be a good indicator of an average person’s health risks, the pretty glaring flaw is that the figure used for weight doesn’t take into account what’s fat and what’s muscle. It’s neatly described with the example of a rugby player whose muscle-bound physique means his weight is so high he is defined as obese under the BMI system.
Then there are the stars of the classic (and it is a classic) film Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, who would both have BMIs of 34, despite having… somewhat different body shapes.
Body shape is an important factor to consider, because if you have an apple-shaped physique, where fat masses around your midriff, it is considered more dangerous than a pear-shaped body, where fat collects around the hips and thighs.
The apple-shaped bod is more common in men and carrying around that abdominal fat is linked with all sorts of bad news – namely an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death. That last one sounds particularly bad.
Fortunately, there’s a quick and easy way to tell if you are carrying around too much timber in your midriff, a method that was recently highlighted on the BBC One show The Truth About…, Obesity. As shown in the clip from the show below, all you need for the test is a piece of string.
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To put into words what was so admirably shown in moving pictures, you grab the string, use it to measure your height, fold that length in half and see if it wraps around your waist. Wrap the halved length of string halfway between your hip bone and your lowest rib. Don’t breathe in – you’ll only be cheating yourself. If the string isn’t long enough to wrap around your entire waist, your waist-to-height ratio (WHtR) is more than 0.5 and you are at increased risk of health problems.
In 2014 researchers from Case Business School looked into the extra risk of early death created by having a WHtR measurement over 0.5 and, pleasingly, they used Twins as an example. They found that, despite their matching BMIs, Arnie (WHtR 0.48) wouldn’t expect to lose any years of life, while DeVito (WHtR of 0.71), risked losing 5.8 years.
For those of us not living in ’80s buddy comedies, the research suggested that a man of the average height of 5ft 10in (1.78m) should have a waist no larger than 35in (89cm) to be healthy. Should his waist expand to 42in (107cm), ie 60% of his height, he risked losing 1.7 years of life, and if it reached 56in (142cm), he could expire 20.2 years earlier.
So gather your friends, grab a piece of string, rent Twins and settle down to a fine night of comparing waist-to-height ratios.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.