by Ronald W. Thebarge, PhD
If you are reading Arthritis Self-Management, chances are you know the value of participating in your own health care and know how important self-management is when you live with a chronic condition such as arthritis. If you are reading an article about controlling your weight, chances are you also believe that weight management is an important part of health management. You may know that managing your weight can help you improve or prevent several health conditions that contribute to serious diseases and early death. High blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as osteoarthritis, are all made worse by the combination of aging and excess body weight. The problem is how to lose the excess weight and keep it off. This article discusses the ins and outs of weight management for people with arthritis and takes you through some strategies that can help.
If you live in the United States, you might find yourself among the growing majority of adults that medical standards define as either overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of overweight or obese adults in the United States went from 55.9% in the years 1988–1994 to 66.2% in 2003–2004.
Individuals are said to be overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, obese if they have a BMI of 30 or greater. What does that mean and how can you figure out your BMI? When an individual steps on a scale, the resulting number represents the weight of lean muscle and other tissues, bone, body fluids, and body fat. BMI looks at this number in reference to height to estimate how much of a person’s body weight is accounted for by body fat. The best way to calculate your own BMI is to use a BMI calculator, such as the one on the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Web site. Type in your height and weight, and the calculator will give you your BMI. Though BMI is not a perfect measurement of body fat, it can give you a good idea of where you stand. The same formula is used for both men and women.
Everyone needs some body fat to maintain good health and normal body function. But too much body fat can be inconvenient at best and dangerous to our health at worst. In large part, body fat represents a concentrated form of fuel the body puts into storage for use when food is in short supply. Storing fat worked well for our early ancestors, who sometimes had plenty of food and other times had little or none. They ate abundantly whenever food was available and stored as body fat whatever their bodies didn’t use immediately. When food was scarce, they used that fat as a source of energy for their bodies to burn, shrinking their fat storage supply in the process. Today, if we eat more than we need and store the excess as fat, it’s likely to stay as fat unless we make a deliberate effort to convert it back to energy.
We measure the energy our bodies use in calories. A pound of body fat contains about 3,500 calories’ worth of energy. This is enough to supply the energy needs of a typical adult female for about two days. If she were overweight by about 30 pounds, she would, in theory, have two months worth of excess fuel to carry around. It’s pretty easy to take in more fuel than you can burn in a day. Even an extra 100 calories each day (about the amount in a slice of bread) leads to a gain in a year of about 10 pounds of body fat. To lose 10 pounds, you would have to consume fewer calories than you burn. How long it would take would depend on how you went about it. For example, if you wanted to lose a pound of fat in a week, you would have to burn 500 calories more than you consumed every day that week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories = 1 pound of fat). You could do this by eating less, being more active, or a combination. In 10 weeks, you would see a 10-pound reduction in body fat.
If you are overweight or obese, knowing the above information about calories is much better than not knowing it. Still better is knowing that you can effectively control your weight. But best of all is when you are highly motivated, have an effective plan for weight loss, and have the resources you need to carry out the plan successfully.
With a majority of adults in the United States now overweight or obese, it is harder for some people to recognize when their weight is a problem. Looking around, a person might think, “It’s no problem, because I’m like everybody else.” But by using BMI, you can be more objective about identifying whether you have a weight issue. If you have arthritis, you have additional reasons to lose weight, and these can add to your motivation. Some people realize that they are overweight or obese by objective standards such as BMI but are not yet convinced that there is any advantage to losing weight. For them, the next step is to gather more data and make a decision that reflects their values, while remaining open to new information as it comes along. The reality is that the best possible treatment plan in the world is useless unless you practice it actively.
Last Reviewed on April 21, 2010
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