• Obesity & Your Heart: How Body Weight Relates to Cardiovascular Disease

    If you’ve ever tried to lose even a few pounds, you know it can be hard, frustrating work. However, losing weight is about so much more than fitting into your favorite pair of jeans again. Being overweight contributes to cardiovascular diseases that cause heart attack and stroke as well as diabetes. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will increase your odds of a heart-healthy future.

    How Much Weight Is Too Much?

    You will often hear two categories described for being above a healthy weight: overweight and obese. These categories are defined based on a number called body mass index (BMI). The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute provides a simple BMI calculator here, where you can input your height and weight and find out your BMI. A BMI of 25–29.9 is classified as overweight, and 30 or above indicates obesity.

    BMI is an estimating tool-it does not measure your actual percentage of body fat. Therefore, some people with a lot of muscle (which weighs more than fat) may be incorrectly identified as overweight or obese. Other methods of measuring body fat are also available.

    Overweight Versus Obese: Does It Make a Difference?

    If your body weight falls within the obese range, you will need to lose weight to reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Losing even 5–10 percent of your body weight can improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Your heart and entire cardiovascular system will benefit, as will other systems throughout your body. Obesity isn’t just a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases; it also increases the risk of cancers such as breast, colon, and thyroid cancer, among others.

    If your BMI puts you in the overweight range, your doctor will evaluate you on an individual basis. Where do you carry most of your weight? A large waist measurement, or “pear-shaped” body, is considered a greater risk factor than carrying weight elsewhere in your body. How are your cholesterol and triglyceride levels? Do you smoke? Do you have high blood pressure? Diabetes? If you are otherwise healthy, being overweight (but not obese) may not put you at significant cardiovascular risk. Your physician can advise you as to whether your weight is a concern for your heart health, based on your other risk factors.

    When It’s Time to Drop the Pounds

    If losing weight and keeping it off were easy, overweight and obesity rates in the United States would be lower. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 out of 10 adults over age 20 are overweight or obese. However, it is possible to lose and maintain weight, and there are many resources and treatment options available.

    • Start by looking at weight loss in manageable terms. For example, if you are overweight or obese, discuss your weight loss goals with your physician. You could set an initial goal of losing 5 percent of your body weight and see if it has an effect on your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood glucose levels.
    • Seek help from professionals and groups: your healthcare providers, a personal trainer, a dietitian, support groups and others. You can work with these professionals in their work environments, and they can also give you recommendations for what you can change at home.
    • Strive to reduce your portion sizes at meals and overall intake of calories. If you eat even a little bit less than you typically would every day, you should begin to lose weight. Measure some of the foods you commonly eat to see what a serving size really looks like. Is a single ½ cup serving of ice cream what you expected?
    • Find forms of exercise that you enjoy. You don’t have to begin by training for a marathon. Walk with a friend in the mornings, evenings or during a lunch break at work. Sign up for an aerobics or aquatics class with a friend or form friendships in the class. Having a group of people that you will feel “accountable” to can make it easier to go to class on days you’d rather stay home. Go for bike rides with your family on the weekend. You may be motivated to stick with it by thinking about how your whole family will benefit.
    • If lifestyle changes are not enough, your physician may recommend prescription weight-loss medications. These can help you lose enough weight to lower your risks for cardiovascular and other diseases. However, they are not a long-term weight-management solution, and they do not eliminate the need to make lifelong dietary and physical activity changes.
    • If obesity presents substantial health risks, your physician may recommend gastric bypass surgery or another form of bariatric surgery to change how your stomach and small intestine handle food. Emerging research seems to indicate that gastric bypass surgery, in addition to leading to weight loss, can improve or reverse Type 2 diabetes in some patients.

    Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider

    • Is my weight healthy for me?
    • Is my weight now a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes?
    • What lifestyle changes do I need to make to manage my weight?
    • What resources are available to me to help me make heart-healthy lifestyle changes?
    • Do I need medications or gastric bypass surgery in addition to lifestyle changes to control my weight and reduce my risk of a serious cardiovascular event?

    Learn More

    Lifestyle changes will always be at the heart of a weight-loss plan. The same lifestyle changes that will help you lose weight are good for your heart. Visit SecondsCount’s Nutrition, Diet & Your Heart center for more about a heart-healthy diet. To learn more about building good exercise habits, visit the center on Physical Activity, Exercise & Your Heart.