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Six Smart Ways to Assess Your Health That Have Nothing to Do With BMI

The body mass index was invented 200 years ago, by a guy who wasn’t even a doctor

Credit: golero/Getty Images

DDespite its widespread use, there are big problems with using the Body Mass Index (or BMI) to assess weight and, by extension, a patient’s overall health.

For one thing, the number, which is derived by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared, doesn’t account for your bones or muscle mass. And the notion behind the metric — that high BMI (and particularly an “overweight” or “obese” classification based on the system) is correlated with poor health — is murky at best. Plenty of people with low BMI scores are unhealthy — it’s possible to be a “healthy” weight and have diabetes or heart disease, for example — and many people who score high on the BMI live long, healthy lives.

Part of the problem is that no single measure or test can fully capture something as vast and complex as your overall health.

Although carrying excess weight can put people at higher risk of chronic illness, more and more scientists are coming to the conclusion that BMI is a shoddy way to judge any individual’s well-being. Some even argue that the widespread use of BMI has done serious harm by pathologizing bodies that may be perfectly healthy but don’t look lean and sinewy.

Part of the problem is that no single measure or test can fully capture something as vast and complex as your overall health. However, there are many better ways to get a snapshot than BMI, which was invented 200 years ago, by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer and mathematician — not a doctor.

Here are a few you can even do yourself — no doctor’s visit required.

Survey your sleep

Sleep is key to nearly all physiological processes: immune function, clearing waste from the brain, and a healthy metabolism among them. Still, about a third of American adults don’t get the recommended seven hours per night.

Just one night of poor sleep can temporarily raise blood pressure, and more than a dozen studies have linked sleep deprivation to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. In three large epidemiological studies, researchers found that sleeping five hours or less per night increased mortality from all causes by roughly 15%.

If you’re not sure if you’re sleeping enough, take this quiz from the Sleep Foundation.

Breathe deep

Too much sitting, not enough aerobic exercise, and, yes, smoking can whittle away our lungs’ ability to expand and use oxygen optimally.

Here’s a simple test to gauge whether your lungs are in good shape: Run up two flights of stairs or walk six blocks. You should be able to do either without stopping or getting short of breath.

Get up off the floor without using your hands or knees

This deceptively difficult test of strength and flexibility, published by physician and researcher Claudio Gil Araújo, is a strong predictor of longevity.

First, lower yourself to the floor with your legs crossed, but do not use your hands, knees, arms, sides, or your legs to brace yourself. Then stand up again without supporting yourself. If you can do this perfectly, you get a “10” — but you lose points every time you cheat.

In adults over 50, Araújo found that people who scored lowest, between 0–3, were about five times more likely to die within the next six years or so than those who scored 8–10 points.

Study your stool

Looking at your poop may sound gross, but regular, well-formed stools are an important harbinger of good health. Roughly 16% of Americans are constipated, which isn’t just uncomfortable — it can be dangerous. Paying attention to your poop is also key to recognizing signs of colon cancer, which is on the rise in the U.S.

Here’s a handy chart to help you identify if things are going smoothly.

Assess your loneliness

Our cultural fixation on the dangers of obesity means we often overlook the very real problem of social isolation, which can be more deadly. One 2013 study of older people found that loneliness was associated with an increase in mortality comparable to that of smoking, and twice that of obesity. That’s scary stuff, considering that the percentage of American adults who report being lonely has doubled since the 1980s.

Combating loneliness isn’t about making sure your calendar is fully booked, or having a predetermined, doctor-approved number of friends. What matters is perceived isolation — the sense of being left out, poorly understood, and unable to connect.

To capture such feelings, researchers have devised a number of questionnaires, including the UCLA Loneliness Index and this UC Berkeley quiz on social capital. See how you fare. If you’re lonelier than you realized, consider following these recommendations to expand your social network.

Take a depression test

Researchers now think that depression could be at least as bad for your health as obesity. Depression is often accompanied by other factors that damage health, such as insomnia and substance abuse, and the longer depression lingers untreated, the worse the long-term health effects.

This online test from Kaiser can help you assess whether you need to see a doctor.

Of course, this list is no substitute for getting regular medical checkups, but it’s a good place to look for warning signs or questions to discuss with your doctor.

And if you find that you fare well by these measures, that’s worth paying attention to, also: If you feel connected to others, take joy in everyday life, sleep soundly, breathe easily, and can both pick yourself up and poop like a champ, you’re likely in pretty good health — whatever your BMI.

Freelance writer and contributing correspondent at Science magazine. Website:

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