The tale of the tummy

As a notional rule, we all understand that we should be a certain weight, and that being heavier can increase a range of different health risks, in particular your heart health. A recent study has found that excess tummy weight, may actually be worse for women’s heart health than men’s.

The study looked at 500,000 people (55% of them women), ages 40 to 69, in the United Kingdom. The researchers took body measurements of the participants and then kept track of who had heart attacks over the next seven years. During that period, the women who carried more weight around their middles (measured by waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, or waist-to-height ratio) had a 10% to 20% greater risk of heart attack than women who were just heavier over all (measured by body mass index, or BMI, a calculation of weight in relation to height).

The waist/hip male/female ratio

So often losing weight is the headline act – diets and fads all promoting weight loss, focusing on it as the primary goal. It’s important of course, as our weight and body shape are intrinsically linked, but this study clearly showed that having a larger waist-to-hip ratio, in particular, is a bigger heart attack risk factor for women than men. The analysis showed that compared with BMI, waist-to-hip ratio was 18% stronger as a heart attack predictor in women, versus 6% stronger in men.

The reality is, whichever gender you are, the key take home message from the study is that carrying tummy fat is a significantly stronger determinant of your heart health risk than just being over weight.  

Wider waist = bigger risks

For both men and women, weight gain around the tummy represents an increase in the amount of what’s called “visceral fat”, the yucky sticky type that encases your internal organs. There are many studies additional to this one, that clearly show a poor waist-to-hip ratio is linked to increased diabetes and cardiovascular risk. A 2015 study² actually found that normal-weight people with a “spare tire” had a higher risk of dying of heart disease or any other cause compared with people not carrying weight around their middle, regardless of whether they were normal weight, overweight, or obese.

So, if your you’re having to add holes into your belt, or needing to breathe in a lot more than you used to, it may be time to take some action and actively begin to reduce your risk.

Manage your weight

There is still a natural correlation with overall weight gain and an increased waist hip ratio. Women tend to put on the weight as they get older and in particular after menopause. There are a number of reasons for this such as hormonal changes, a decline in muscle mass (because fat burns less calories than muscle), and in some cases, lifestyle changes. Managing your weight, and your waist, and making any necessary changes to your daily routine can help prevent the kg’s from creeping up as you go through this transition. It’s not about fad dieting or being obsessed with your weight, but rather maintaining healthy lifestyle choices that keep you in good stead.

Get moving

We say it all the time, so it’s probably no surprise that increasing the amount of exercise you do should be a goal if you’re looking to keep your waistline in check. If you’re squeezed for time, fit it in where you can, a half-hour walk at lunch, park the car a bit further away from work, take the stairs, it doesn’t have to be excessively vigorous, you don’t need to strap on the tights or head to the gym. Just being physically active can help improve your metabolic health. Even getting up to stretch and walk around as part of your ergonomic management can be beneficial.

You may not always lose weight by moving more, but it will help you maintain a healthy weight and also improve blood sugar levels. Adding some basic strength training at least twice a week, focusing on all the major muscle groups, may also help you maintain your weight as a higher proportion of muscle mass helps to burn more calories.

¹ Published March 6 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association,
² Dec. 15, 2015, Annals of Internal Medicine

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