Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to identify areas of your health that need improving

From BMI, to blood pressure, cholesterol and more, Dr Michelle O'Driscoll says it is important to know the key measures for good health
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to identify areas of your health that need improving

It can be helpful to be familiar with key measures for good health so you can set yourself New Year health goals, says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll. Picture: Stock

WE did it, we survived the Christmas rush. We enjoyed the dinner and the sweet treats, the Baileys and the bubbles. And while it was all well-deserved, this time in early January can get us thinking about our health, and what our goals could or should be for the coming months.

Health checks involve lots of different measures, figures and ranges. In order to identify what areas need work, or where our health could be improved, it can be useful to understand some of the most common numbers provided to us.

Depending on things like age or pre-existing medical conditions, the targets for your personal situation can vary, but it’s definitely helpful to understand what they mean, and what rough range you should be aiming for.

BMI

BMI stands for Body Mass Index. It’s a way of reporting a person’s weight in relation to their height.

Taking height into account is important because of course somebody who is six foot tall is usually expected to be heavier than somebody who is only five foot.

The calculation for BMI takes your weight in kg, and divides it by your height in metres which has first been squared. The figure you get should ideally fall between 18 and 25kg/m 2.

As a rough rule of thumb, a value of over 25 is considered to be overweight, and under 18 is considered to be underweight. This measurement has its flaws however, as it does not take into account weight due to increased muscle mass e.g. a rugby player.

Waist circumference

While BMI is one indication of weight and whether or not you’re overweight, waist circumference is another insightful measurement.

The greater the waist circumference, the greater the metabolic risk as it is thought to be a good indicator of internal fat deposits. It is often used in combination with BMI to assess risk for cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

You can measure your waist circumference with a tape measure, just after breathing out, by placing the tape just above the hips. 

The typical values differ between men and women. Risk increases for women with a circumference of over 35 inches, while for men the risk is higher over 40 inches.

Blood pressure

When your blood pressure is read by either an electronic BP machine or a manual cuff and stethoscope, you are given two figures, one of which is usually substantially higher than the other.

The first higher figure is the pressure that the heart is under when it’s squeezing tight (systole) and the second lower figure is the pressure that the heart is under when it’s relaxing (diastole).

Ideally, a perfect textbook blood pressure is 120/80 but there is room for variation with both of those values, depending on your health status.

Blood glucose

A blood glucose reading can be conducted in your pharmacy using a finger prick test, and it uses a small sample of blood to see how much glucose or sugar is present.

The value that you’re looking for depends on whether or not you’ve eaten recently. If you’ve been fasting, one would hope there would be a low level of glucose in your blood as this would mean that your body is successfully absorbing the sugar into the cells for energy (less than 7mmol/L). If you’ve recently eaten, this figure would be expected to be a bit higher while still not exceeding a certain level (up to 11mmol/L).

Levels above these would prompt further investigations.

Cholesterol

Our cholesterol level is something that we’re quite conscious of as we get older. It’s present in all of our cells, and is created by the liver. In high amounts, it can lead to blockages, causing heart or brain issues.

Even with a healthy diet, genetics can play a role and drive our cholesterol levels up.

Our cholesterol reading from a blood test is broken down into different types of fats. The total cholesterol level would ideally be less than 5mmol/L, and the high and low density lipoprotein levels would also be checked.

Slightly raised total cholesterol levels can often be addressed by lifestyle changes, but sometimes, depending on your health status, a medication may be required to lower or maintain your cholesterol level.

The above are some of the key measures that compile a general health check.

While target values are often individualised, it can be helpful to be familiar with what the figures mean in order to plan ahead for your New Year health goals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally. See www.intuition.ie and @intuitionhealthandwellness

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