Each of us likely has a different take on and definition of health, with perspectives that fall on a spectrum.
For some, health may be defined merely as the absence of disease — or successful management of a known, diagnosed condition. On the other end of the spectrum, self-proclaimed biohackers may look at health as almost superhuman displays of athletic performance, turbo-charged brain function, and beyond-average longevity.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We’d like to have good energy, maintain a relatively lean body composition, be pain-free, enjoy movement and exercise, and sleep well.
Regardless of how you define it, quantifying health can get tricky. While there are many components to a health assessment, having a few benchmarks to regularly track and measure against as a baseline can provide objective data to evaluate how you’re doing and what might need some attention.
While the metrics here are by no means all-encompassing, they can serve as part of your toolkit of self-assessment to help you determine the status of your health today.
1. Body-Fat Percentage
Many people tend to hyper-focus on scale weight, not realizing that it’s possible to have varying levels of leanness and fat mass within one body at the same weight. While it’s not necessary to be extremely lean to be healthy (and in fact, being too lean comes at its own health expenses), it’s important to understand your body composition by tracking body-fat percentage.
Excess fat can contribute to inflammation. Our adipose, or fat tissue, is considered an endocrine organ due to the compounds and certain metabolism-disrupting hormones it secretes. In the literature, being obese has been recognized as a state of chronic, low-grade inflammation. You don’t have to have a lot of body fat tissue to have a higher than optimal body fat percentage because low muscle mass also results in higher body fat percentage (since the less muscle you have, the higher the percent of your total weight is from fat mass). Maintaining and building muscle, especially as we get older, is crucial for blood-sugar control, joint stability, bone health, and strength.
The best way to manage body-fat percentage is to work on the maintenance and building of muscle through a well-designed resistance training program, adequate protein intake, and, for those with excess fat mass, prioritization of the good nutrition habits (including getting ample fiber, eating wholesome vegetables and fruits, and consuming healthy fats). This combination encourages slow, steady, consistent losses.
To gain a deeper understanding of how to assess and address weight, body composition, and body-fat percentage, read “Measuring Body Weight.”
2. Waist-to-Hip Ratio
The distribution of fat throughout the body matters, too, and the risks of carrying belly fat are well-known. Midsection fat mass has been linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, blood-sugar and insulin dysregulation, and even reflux and esophageal cancers.
Waist-to-hip ratio is one physical measure that can determine how fat is distributed in the body. It’s measured by the circumference of the waist divided by the circumference of the hip.
A good general target is less than 0.9 for men and 0.8 for females. A higher ratio is linked to many of the same concerns as those of obesity, and it even has been tied to issues with memory, thinking, and other cognitive functions. For those with type 2 diabetes, an elevated waist-to-hip ratio has been identified as a strong predictor of heart attacks and death.
You can measure your waist-to-hip ratio at home with a flexible measuring tape. Measure your waist at the narrowest part, usually just above your belly button. Make sure to breathe normally, exhale, then measure — no need to try to “suck in” your midsection.
To measure your hips, measure around the widest part of your buttocks.
Be sure that the measuring tape for both measurements is parallel to the floor and divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement.
3. Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is measured as systolic blood pressure (the pressure while your heart is beating) over diastolic blood pressure (the pressure in between beats). It’s typically reported with systolic listed as the top number over diastolic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a systolic blood pressure over 130 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure over 80 mmHg puts you at a higher risk of the leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association considers readings of less than 120/80 as normal.
Keeping tabs on blood pressure is crucial, as elevated blood pressure is often silent. Luckily, blood pressure is relatively accessible to monitor at home with a blood-pressure cuff; if that’s not an option, most local pharmacies provide an option.
Since blood pressure can be dynamic, aim to measure after resting for at least five to 10 minutes and without caffeine or alcohol in your system. Be sure to sit quietly with your legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor.
(Learn more about blood pressure at “6 Misconceptions About Blood Pressure.”)
When many people hear the word “testosterone,” they are often quick to think of large muscles, aggressive behavior, strong libido, or impressive athletic performance. Yet this hormone is actually a health benchmark we all should be monitoring and considering on an annual basis.
In men, data has shown that as testosterone levels decrease, all-cause mortality increases. It may even be used as a predictive marker for those at risk for heart disease.
In both men and women, testosterone is important for mental health, bone density, and even pain control —all critical factors to overall well-being. It’s also critical for building and maintaining muscle, which is crucial across the lifespan to support strength, independence, blood-sugar control, and overall resilience.
A key issue with testosterone monitoring is traditional laboratory reference ranges are the same whether someone is 18 years old or 80. Since testosterone does naturally decrease with aging, below-optimal levels can often be missed because they fall within traditional parameters.
Testosterone is best measured through a blood test and assessed as both “total” testosterone and “free” testosterone, which is more accessible for use in the body. Depending on where you live, you may even be able to order this test directly, such as through the lab panels available at Life Time.
(For a deep-dive into testosterone and how to support your levels, see “Low Testosterone: Causes, Symptoms, and Solutions.”)
5. Blood-Sugar Trends
There’s no such thing as optimal health without keen regulation of blood sugar. And this benchmark is particularly important, as imbalances in blood-sugar regulation — even in the absence of diabetes — are rampant.
An estimated one-third of us have impaired blood-sugar control, and many don’t know it. Since out-of-whack blood sugar has been linked to heart disease, excess body fat, poor sleep, faster weight gain, and poor cognition, monitoring and optimizing blood-sugar regulation is a marker that deserves to be at the top of all of our health to-do lists.
Fasting blood sugar is a commonly used metric to assess glucose (or blood-sugar) regulation. However, it’s best when taken in context as a trend. While some reference ranges consider “normal” blood sugar as anything under 100 mg/dL, it’s best to target a fasting blood-sugar trend in the 80s. Since poor sleep or stress can temporarily raise it, testing blood sugar regularly provides the best information.
Another option is Hemoglobin A1C, or glycosylated hemoglobin. This lab metric provides an estimate of how blood sugars have been trending for the three months prior to testing. While it’s not foolproof, monitoring both Hemoglobin A1C and fasting blood-sugar trends together is a solid approach for anyone looking to dial in their heath.
(For a better understanding of blood sugar and how to optimize it, read “The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Blood Sugar.”)
6. Vitamin D
As a dietitian and a trainer, I consider knowing and optimizing vitamin-D levels as a table-stakes benchmark that every individual needs be assessing (in partnership with their healthcare team, of course).
The far-reaching effects of vitamin D on health are well-established: It’s tied to immunity, blood-sugar control, heart disease, hormone balance, bone health, mood, and more. And many of us are deficient — or at the very least, below optimal.
Estimates show that the average person has a vitamin D level of only 16 to 25 ng/mL. According to the Vitamin D Council, a level of 40 to 100 ng/mL is necessary to be considered “sufficient to high-normal.”
Ideally, if you’re supplementing — in addition to getting a daily dose of sunshine — use only a high-quality vitamin-D3 supplement combined with vitamin K. While it’s rare and typically only seen at high, chronic supplement doses, it is possible to get too much vitamin D. (Because it’s fat-soluble, excess does not get excreted.)
Aim to get your lab markers and vitamin-D levels tested every six months or so to keep tabs on where your levels are trending.
(For a thorough review of vitamin D and its effects on health, read “Vitamin D: Deficiency Symptoms and Benefits of Supplementation.”)
Determining whether you’re truly healthy or not can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. While we can never fully control our health outcomes, our lifestyle habits and behaviors have a significant bearing on our risks and circumstances.
Assessing our risks — and knowing what to do next — takes some objective data. These six benchmarks can serve as guideposts for how your health is, and help you prioritize and direct your focus areas so you can work toward becoming the healthiest you.