Fit to play with Jim Johnson: The Healthometer

  • Jim Johnson

Published: 5/8/2023 8:27:25 PM

I went in for my annual physical the other day. As always, the first step is to be weighed. After stripping everything I could, I stepped on the scale and looked down to see my weight and saw that I was being weighed by a Healthometer! Really? Is this all they need to determine my state of health? Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as one’s health status is far more complicated than weight. But there are many who judge their health by their weight. Just a pound or two one way or the other can affect one’s perception of themselves. When did we become so obsessed with body weight as the basis of health?

The weight/health relationship goes back to 1901 when NY Life insurance was reluctant to sell life insurance to people they deemed overweight. In the 1940’s MetLife announced being overweight as America’s biggest health problem and produced their ideal height-weight charts. One problem with these charts was that people seeking life insurance were not representative of the American population. A second problem is that simply knowing weight does not tell us the composition of the body. For example, you can have two people who are the same height and weight but differ widely in composition; one can be 30-percent fat and the other only 15-percent fat.

MetLife’s tables were eventually dropped, but what took its place may be less useful, possibly even harmful — Body Mass Index (BMI), introduced in the 1830’s by a Belgian statistician. BMI is used regularly in doctor’s offices and gyms; school nurses use it in school reports. One reason for its frequent use is that it is easy to calculate: take your weight in kilograms and divide by the square of your height in meters. It seems scientific. BMI works well when describing a population of thousands of people, but is no use for predicting health or desirable weight for an individual. As with height/weight tables, BMI does not account for one’s body composition. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to determine how much a person should weigh.

When I leave the office my BMI is on my report; I ignore it. But let’s say you are overweight, what do you do about it? You can start dieting, but that’s not always a clear path and often doesn’t work. What you can do is get fit. Yes, you can be fit and heavy. In fact, exercise has a protective effect for those who are too heavy compared to those who are inactive. The focus of your exercise should not be on weight loss but improved function, allowing you to live a more dynamic life. Being heavy should not compromise your quality of life.

I’m often asked what the best exercise is. My typical answer is “the one you will do,” but for people who are heavy, I recommend supported exercise. Any time you have to carry the extra weight you will be compromised. Unless you have a world champion heart, jogging will be very uncomfortable. On the other hand, swimming, rowing, and biking on a flat surface will be much easier. Paddling a canoe or kayak works great. Heavier people easily accomplish weight training, yoga, Pilates, and anaerobic sports like softball and baseball. I also recommend walking, especially since big people burn more calories than little people when walking.

We are all aware that children in our country are heavier than ever, that overweight children tend to be overweight adults. There isn’t a simple answer to this complex problem, but I do know that overweight children can succeed when placed in the right activity. Instead of punishing our children by putting them into situations where they will fail, help them succeed, search for success. Bigger children will experience excellent success when involved in weight training. Their natural weight is a plus. As above, supported activities work well. Big kids are great at biking and rowing, martial arts, skiing, softball, and baseball.

Meanwhile, a healthy diet isn’t dieting; you’re not restricting but simply providing the nutrients your body needs to function at its best. We all live busy lives, but when possible, cook your own food. If you can’t cook, learn. Stepping on your bathroom scale will not tell you if you’re healthy. Don’t give up a healthy lifestyle because you think you’re too heavy. Find the right exercise, get good at it; eat well.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at


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