Recently I lost a good friend (and great human being) to a heart attack at only the age of 35. This guy was not obese, worked out frequently and lived a good life. Days before he was stunting in a cheerleading gym and could still do a backflip with ease. I miss him, and there is nothing I can do to help him now, but I can spend some time writing about things you can track to make sure that you live the longest life you possibly can by just tracking a few simple health metrics. Often we are told to obsess about our weight in this culture and that can give you good information if you are massively under or over weight, but after that there are a few easy, but effective things to track. Here they are in no particular order:
Your waist size
A larger waist is not necessarily a bad thing since there are muscles that surround your core, however, once this gets to a certain size it is due to the fat deposited. This fat can come in two different forms, the subcutaneous which is right under the skin and then the visceral which is literally wrapped around your organs and makes it harder for them to function as you increase the amount. Aim to keep your waist under 36 inches no matter the gender (I have no clue what this means in women’s sizes, since those aren’t anchored in logical numbers). This does require using an actual measuring tape since jean sizes can be wildly inaccurate for what a person’s waist size is. Aim to do this right around your belly button and don’t be sucking it in when you do so.
Your body fat percentage
How much body fat you carry can have a number effects on your health. Body fat serves as not only an energy store, but also as insulation, stores for some vitamins (and even toxins), along with being important for hormone production. Too much fat can have obvious effects on your athleticism, joint health, and lead to things like diabetes and high blood pressure, what people don’t think about is this fat (specifically the visceral fat) wraps around your internal organs which makes it harder for them to function. Your goal for long term health is to keep your body fat in the normal category to perhaps the lean. For men this tends to be between 8-20% where I would suggest staying under 15% and for women this will be from 18%-30%. Now, we all have predisposition for how much fat we have, but your goal should be to carry enough that you have reserves if anything happens (think real bad stomach flu), but not so much that you are carrying around a lot more load for your body to carry. Tracking this once or twice per year will give you information on how your body is trending and this information can help you decide how you might want to change your training and nutrition. The normal setting for people is to gain fat (and lose muscle mass) with time. Do your best to keep this from trending upward with time.
Your resting heart rate
How many times per minute your heart beats is related to literally how hard your heart needs to work at rest to keep you alive. You can think about this in a number of ways, for example what percentage of your maximal heart rate your resting heart rate represents or just how low that number is. High level marathoners will have a resting heart rate that can even get down to the low thirties or high twenties. Well trained people should have a resting heart rate in the high forties to low fifties since this low heart rate is caused by the heart pumping more blood per beat so it doesn’t have to work as hard at rest. Your goal should be to have a resting heart rate in the 50s-60s and that this number should be consistent with time and perhaps even decrease a bit showing that your heart is becoming even more well trained. Some people do have a naturally high resting heart rate, but being aware of this is important. Also, things like dehydration and caffeine will increase your resting heart rate. Aim to check this when you first wake up in the morning or after you have been sitting relaxed for a few minutes.
Your blood pressure
This is the systolic over the diastolic pressure that you get measured often at the doctor’s office by putting a cuff on your arm. The top number is the highest pressure (measured in your arm) of blood being pushed around your artery. Systolic pressure is when you heart is contracting. The lower number (diastolic) is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed. Both numbers matter since the first shows how forcefully your heart is contracting (at rest) and the bottom is how much pressure you have on the lines. Just like too high of pressure on pipes in a building, if this pressure becomes too great (for either number) it can cause damage and a massive increase in risk for things like heart attacks and stroke. If you have high blood pressure there is not only a number of medications that you can take, but you can change your diet and often doing exercise consistently will help your bring this down. This is something to have checked once or twice per year at a minimum since it is called the “silent killer” for good reason. Stress, inactivity coupled with high salt intake, and genetics can cause this number to go up.
Your blood lipid profile
There are a number of values that a blood test can give you. I’m not going to get in to all of them, but if you have insurance that will pay for it you should get a full blood panel done once each year. This is important for the fact that you can track how your health metrics are trending like anything else. Also, some of these values will let you see how your body was when you were younger (and often healthier) so you can have some goals for what to attain along with perhaps some numbers to hit if you ever choose to do hormone replacement therapy. The big ones to check are your cholesterol levels (total, HDL, LDL, and particle size), blood glucose, triglycerides, and maybe your thyroid hormone levels (TSH, T4, and T3) along with your sex hormones (testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, etc.). High cholesterol level, specifically high LDL levels and low HDL levels are related to heart disease and stroke risk. High blood glucose levels (along with A1C levels which show what your average blood sugar over the past month or two) shows your trending towards type two diabetes. The sex and thyroid hormones just show what your general metabolism and gender specific numbers are like. Be careful when looking at “normal” values, since this is simply looking at people that are disease free between 18-65 years old. Your goal should be to be optimal, not just merely acceptable. An example of this would be a decent fasting blood sugar but a high A1C level which tells you that you don’t have diabetes when you aren’t eating for long periods to time, but you spend most of the time with food in you.
If you know who your parents are and you grandparents you can get a good idea as to what your disease risks are. If everyone in your family gets diabetes you know what you need to be mindful of. The same is true for any other major disease that can occur which have a genetic component. If you don’t know your parents or want even better information you can get your genetics ran through a number of companies like 23andme along with promethease. This information can you manage your risk for long term health. Once you know this you don’t need to rerun it per say, but knowledge in the area of genetics is constantly improving so having this information can change with time, specifically the interaction of different genes.