Sunday, January 11, 2015

10 Health Numbers You Need to Know

Take a minute to think about your financial portfolio. If you want to get the most out of your money, you can’t just forget about your investments for years on end, right? Failing to give the proper attention can leave you lacking in the end.  
The same thing goes for your health: It’s your most valuable commodity, but if you’re like most guys, you barely give it a second thought until something goes wrong.
And that’s a mistake: A study from the University of Oregon found that patients who were most engaged in and knowledgeable about their own health were less likely to partake in unhealthy behaviors or visit the emergency room, and more likely to score in the normal range for certain basic lab tests than those who were more hands-off.
So make 2015 the year you finally own your health. The best way to start: See how you measure up for 10 of the most common—and telling—health indicators below.
1. Blood Pressure: Below 140/90 mm Hg
Blood pressure counts as high if it’s over 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). The first number is your systolic pressure—the pressure when your heart is pumping blood. The second number measures your diastolic pressure, which is when your heart is between beats.
Levels from 120-139/80-89 mm Hg can signal you’re in the borderline high BP range where you may be trending toward it. High blood pressure affects almost 30 percent of adults 18 and older in the U.S., and it can really wreak havoc with your heart.
That’s because when your pressure is high, there’s more resistance in your blood vessels. So your heart has to work harder with each pump to transport the blood, says Amy Crawford-Faucher, M.D., an assistant clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Over time, this can stress the heart and leave you vulnerable to heart attack or stroke.
Reach Your Goal: Blood pressure that is significantly high is best controlled with meds called anti-hypertensives—generally thiazide diuretics, ACE inhibitors, or calcium channel blockers. But there are also things you can do to help, too.  Look at your diet and get moving: People with hypertension or prehypertension who followed the DASH diet—low in saturated fats and sodium while emphasizing potassium, calcium, fiber and protein—and exercised three times a week for 4 months knocked 16 points off their systolic readings and 10 points off their diastolic, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine found. 
2. Waist Size: Less Than 40 Inches
One of the most telling looks into your health doesn’t even require lab work—all you need is a tape measure. Snake it around your bare abdomen just above your hip bone—keeping in snug but not digging into your skin—then relax, exhale, and measure your waist. You want the number to be below 40 inches.
“If your waist size is going up, that means you’re accumulating abdominal fat, which is the worst kind of fat to have,” says Tommy Koonce, M.D., M.P.H, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
Why’s it so bad? That visceral fat, which grows around your abdominal organs and underneath your abdominal wall, is hormonally different from the kinds of fat you can pinch on your arms and thighs, says Dr. Crawford-Faucher. And these differences may bring in more serious effects: Visceral fat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes down the line.
Reach Your Goal: Try adding soluble fiber—like oatmeal, apples, or pears—to a healthy diet and exercise program. Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that for every 10-gram increase of soluble fiber per day, the rate of participants’ visceral fat accumulation over 5 year decreased by 4 percent. This suggests that soluble fiber may be key to slowing down belly-fat progression as we age.
3. Blood Sugar: 70-100 mg/dL (Fasting Glucose Test) or Below 5.7 Percent (A1C Test)
There are two common tests that can check for diabetes by measuring your blood sugar: fasting glucose and A1C. Fasting glucose looks at your blood sugar after not eating for at least 8 hours, while the A1C test gives you a trend of your blood sugar levels over the past 3 months. Both tests are routinely used, but it’s possible that the fasting glucose test can “miss” people whose blood sugar levels only become problematic after eating, says Dr. Crawford-Faucher.
High blood sugar damages your blood vessels over time, which can lead to increased risk of heart attack or stroke, as well as kidney and eye problems, she says. So a prompt diagnosis and strict control is vital to keeping any problems in check.
Reach Your Goal: Again, exercise and a healthy diet can help control your blood sugar, especially if you’re in the prediabetic range—100-125 mg/dL on the fasting glucose test or 5.7 to 6.5 percent on the A1C. Balance your workout routine with cardio and lifting to reap the biggest benefit: Researchers from Harvard found that men who combined the two into 150 minutes a week cut their risk of developing diabetes by 59 percent.
4. Total Cholesterol: Less Than 200 mg/dL
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your cells that helps your body make hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids for food digestion. Your total cholesterol number is made up of your levels for low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides (see below). Too much cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease.
Reach Your Goal: A healthy diet, moderate weight loss—if you’re overweight—and exercise can help lower your cholesterol levels. (Noticing a pattern yet?) But here’s one thing to add in each day: green tea. A meta-analysis published in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that drinking green tea can lower your total cholesterol levels by 7.2 mg/dL, possibly due to its antioxidants called catechins.
5. HDL Cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or Above
HDL is known as the “good cholesterol,” because it exerts cardio-protective effects by helping reduce plaque in your arteries. “We want it to be as high as possible—higher is better,” says Dr. Koonce.
Reach Your Goal: It can be difficult for men to keep their levels at 60 or above, says Dr. Crawford-Faucher. But you just don’t want to have the number drop below 40, which can be a risk factor for heart disease. So get off the couch—exercise seems to be most effective at raising HDL levels, says Dr. Koonce. A study from Iran found that young men who performed 6 weeks of high-intensity resistance training—lifting 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 90 percent of their 1-rep max—significantly increased their HDL levels, while those who lifted less weight for more reps did not.
6. LDL Cholesterol:  Below 160 mg/dL (in Healthy Guys)
LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, is stickier than HDL molecules, which make them more likely to build up in your blood vessels and cause blockage over time, says Dr. Crawford-Faucher. The guidelines for LDL levels depend on your risk factors for heart attack or stroke: men over the age of 45, cigarette smoking, family history of early heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes.
If you have none or one of these factors, your LDL max is 160 mg/dL. If you’re at moderate risk—two factors—you should keep it below 130 mg/dL. Any more than that and you should max out at 100 mg/dL.
Reach Your Goal: If you have high LDL, you may be able to try some diet and exercise changes before starting with meds like statins. One easy tweak? Add some beans to your lunch or dinner. A recent meta-analysis from the University of Toronto concluded that eating one serving of legumes a day can decrease LDL by 5 percent—and potentially reduce major heart issues by that amount, too.
7. Triglycerides: 150 mg/dL or Less
Triglycerides—a type of fat in your blood—are measured along with your cholesterol panel, and are usually looked at in tandem with those results. High triglyceride levels contribute to plaque buildup in your blood vessels, which can make them easier to clog, says Dr. Koonce. That puts you at risk of heart attack or stroke.
Reach Your Goal: What you eat might be pushing your triglyceride levels up. One surprising factor? Added sugar. In a study from Emory University, people who consumed more added sugar—sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in food—were significantly more likely to have high triglyceride levels than those with less of a sweet tooth.
8. Exercise: 150 Minutes a Week Plus Weight Training
Make your exercise really work for your heart. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, guys need 150 minutes of moderate exercise—say, brisk walking—and two sessions of total-body strength training each week. 
Think walking is boring? Ramp it up to running or jogging—something vigorous—and you only need 75 minutes each week, plus the two sessions of strength training.
“Less intense or less frequent exercising doesn’t seem to confer the cardiovascular protection that those levels do,” says Dr. Koonce.
Reach Your Goal: If you have high cholesterol, high BP, or a significant family history of heart disease, you might want to check with your doc before you lace up. Otherwise, pick something you like—maybe you want to start running races or cycling on weekends—and work your way up to the goal time gradually, says Dr. Koonce. Need some help sticking with it? Head outside. A review from the U.K. concluded that people who exercise outdoors not only experience a spike in mental well-being, but they’re also more likely to want to do the activity again in the future.
9. Alcohol: 2 Drinks a Day
That’s what is considered “moderate drinking” for men—a mark that may actually be helpful for your heart. Too much hooch, on the other hand, can damage your body. Guys who drink excessive amounts of alcohol may begin to notice things like sapped energy, fatigue, trouble concentrating, a rise in blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, and even weight gain due to the empty calories, says Dr. Koonce. In more chronic, severe cases, they may begin to experience irreversible liver effects.
Reach Your Goal: The first step is to be honest with yourself about how much you’re actually drinking. If you’re not counting the crushed beer cans, it can be difficult to gauge your intake. So for one week, make it a point to jot down what you’re drinking, says Dr. Koonce. Then try to cut back gradually, like by one beer per sitting. Still having trouble? Ask your doc to point you to resources that can make it easier.
10. Sleep: 7 Hours and 46 Minutes
That’s the “optimal duration” of sleep, finds a new study from Finland. Men who averaged that amount each night logged the fewest number of sick days per year. Sure, it’s an awfully specific number, but it falls right in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s general recommendations for 7 to 8 hours per night. That’s because skimping on shuteye can raise your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity—besides making you feel like a zombie.
Reach Your Goal: Cutting down on interruptions could help you catch more sleep. One common problem? Allowing Fido to hop into bed with you. According to researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center, 63 percent of people who snooze with their pets have poor sleep quality. What’s more, 5 percent reported difficulty falling back asleep after their pet woke them up.

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