When it comes to reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, whittling your waistline could be more important than shifting the number on the scale.
Almost 40% of American adults are obese, which increases the odds of developing diseases such as stroke, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, but your body mass index does not need to be greater than 30 for you to be at risk for obesity-related diseases.
“Where fat is located matters.”
Even in normal weight and overweight adults, a waistline greater than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men is associated with an increased risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
“Where fat is located matters,” says Dr. Erin Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Visceral fat [another word for belly fat] is more of a risk than total fat.”
THE HEALTH HAZARDS OF BELLY FAT
New research published in the journal Menopause adds to robust evidence that carrying weight around your waist can pose serious health hazards. In the study, women with so-called central obesity had significantly higher rates of coronary artery disease compared to women classified as obese based on their body mass indexes. It is the latest in an ever-increasing number of studies showing waist circumference is more predictive of heart disease than weight.
While the connection between waist circumference and cardiovascular disease is not well-understood, Michos suspects excess belly fat makes it harder to process blood sugar. Visceral fat might also trigger inflammation, which is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The width of your waistline isn’t just linked to heart disease. Based on data from more than 650,000 adults, researchers found men with a waist circumference greater than 43 inches had more than a 50% greater risk of death during a 14-year period than men whose waists measured 37 inches. For women, there was an 80% greater risk of death associated with a waist circumference of 37 inches compared with 27.5 inches.
LOSE THE BELLY FAT, REDUCE THE RISK
The solution: Lose the weight, says Dr. Jennifer Ellis, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue in New York and adviser to the American Heart Association’s EmPOWERED to Serve platform.
A total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week is the gold standard but Ellis emphasizes that starting slow and working your way toward that goal is OK. Go for a walk around the block, sign up for aqua fitness classes or practice yoga. Eating a heart-healthy diet is also essential.
“Obesity puts a strain on your entire body,” she says. “If you lose the weight, you reduce the risk. It literally might be a life or death decision.”