Happiest and Healthiest: Can you really measure health?


Katherine Carbonell

This past Wednesday, I had my biometrics measured through a free service offered by the Rec. The biometric screenings include height, weight, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and percent body fat. First, let’s define some terms. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. According to the CDC, “BMI can be used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems but it is not diagnostic of the body fatness or health of an individual.” High blood pressure (hypertension) puts extra stress on your heart and blood vessels, and low blood pressure (hypotension) can indicate endocrine problems, dehydration, or a lack of nutrients in your diet. At the Rec, body fat percentage is measured via near-infrared (NIR) interactance: a probe is placed on your bicep, emitting infrared light that passes through muscle and fat. The NIR machine then uses this information along with age and activity level to estimate body composition. In a nutshell, biometric screenings give you a general idea of how your body is doing according to set standards that are considered healthy.

So, why did I have my biometrics measured? To be perfectly transparent, I had no real motivation — I was at the Rec for a workout with some CHAARG girls and happened upon a free service. Why not? I read my results on the walk home: normal BMI, normal blood pressure, excellent body fat percentage. I should have been happy with these numbers — but for a moment, I wasn’t.

Automatically, like a knee-jerk reaction crafted by years of trying to fit a mold, a voice in my head wondered when I had left the low BMI category. It considered that despite a title of “Risky,” there was a lower tier for body fat percentage. It was technically possible for me to have less fat. It was technically possible for me to lose weight. Then, so abruptly that I nearly stopped in my tracks, I forced that voice into silence. That, too, has become a knee-jerk reaction for me thanks to the CHAARG community and a whole lot of personal reflection. But for too many others, it’s not. For too many others, that voice only gets louder. And when it’s self-deprecating instead of productive, or even irrational or wholly unnecessary, biometric screenings and other body measurements can do a lot more harm than good. How ironic that a measure of overall “health” can actually detract from it.

Looking at those numbers, I remembered a particularly grueling personal hardship just two summers ago in which I didn’t have an actual meal or drink nearly enough water for about 2 weeks — not because I wanted to lose weight, but because the thought of eating made me nauseous. I lost about ten pounds, and for weeks afterward (even when I could eat again), I had to stop every time I stood up to ward off a bout of dizziness and blurred vision. The worst part? The image of myself in the mirror was finally “ideal” — it would have made my high-school-self very proud. But in the moment, all I felt was weak, tired, and entirely not myself. Now, I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been because I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. I have a “normal” BMI, but how I feel is so much better than normal. Body measurements are useful tools, but nothing will ever be a better gauge of your health than how you feel. How you truly feel may or may not be reflected in those numbers. How you truly feel can’t be neatly categorized according to standards set by a governmental organization. Should you avoid taking body measurements if you’re genuinely curious? Of course not. Just remember that the numbers can only say so much, and it’s always okay to say “no” to that little voice in your head.