While you might favor a trim waistline for aesthetics, your waist circumference is actually more than that — it's also a good window into your current state of health, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The fat that gathers deep around your abdominal area is known as visceral fat and surrounds the internal organs, according to the Mayo Clinic. Whereas subcutaneous fat (the fat right below your skin) may cause cosmetic concern, visceral fat can be linked with more health problems.
Measuring Your Waist Circumference
Waist circumference is a simple measurement that can help you monitor your health right from home, according to the NIH. Typically, a circumference of 35 inches or less is considered a normal and healthy waist size for women, according to the NIH. Women with a waist measurement greater than 35 inches may be at higher risk for certain diseases and health issues.
Follow these steps to take your waist circumference:
- Exhale normally.
- Find the midway point between the bottom of your ribs and top of your hip bone.
- Wrap the tape around this section of your body, making sure it stays parallel to the floor.
Health Risks of Larger Waist Sizes
Women, in particular, may begin to see higher levels of visceral fat as they age, according to the Mayo Clinic. Not only do women's bodies lose muscle with age, but they often experience a decrease in estrogen, which appears to affect where the body distributes fat. For many women, this means an increased level of fat around the midsection.
Since the 1980s, research has time and time again found a connection between abdominal fat and increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to a May 2015 article published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Currently, waist circumference is considered a criteria for the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome (conditions that increase your risk of chronic health conditions).
Achieving a Healthy Waist Size
Cleaning up your diet is the first step to eliminating visceral fat, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eliminate sugary beverages and processed foods, and replace them with plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Opt for lean sources of protein and low-fat dairy products, and don't forget to keep your portion sizes in check.
Try to introduce some form of physical activity into your weekly routine, recommends the Mayo Clinic. A healthy activity regime includes at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio, like running. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also recommends that you introduce at least two strength-training sessions per week.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Fat Loss
Other Measures of Health
Your body mass index (BMI) is another measure that can help you monitor your health. This number — which you can easily calculate using LIVESTRONG.com's BMI calculator — takes your height and weight into account, allowing you to rank your results in comparison to a standardized set of numbers.
Generally, a healthy BMI sits between 18.5 to 24.9, according to the NIH. A value below 18.5 typically indicates the person is underweight, while a BMI between 25 to 29.9 typically means the person has overweight. A value of 30 and above is considered obesity. But keep in mind, BMI does not take muscle mass into account. So, for athletes with a lot of muscle, BMI may inaccurately reflecting the state of their health.
Plus, a high waist circumference can increase your risk of developing health conditions independent of body mass index, according to a September 2018 study published in the Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences. After researching patients that suffered from heart attack, researchers found that a higher waist circumference indicated increased risk factors, whether body mass index (BMI) was high or low. In other words, waist circumference may be a better indicator of health risk than BMI levels.
Tools like skinfold calipers are a great tool for assessing body composition but require a little extra work and knowledge, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Typically, this measurement is taken by a personal trainer or coach, who will pinch various areas of your body and use the calipers to measure the amount of fat in the body. While this tool can give you a slightly more accurate measure of your body composition than BMI, it does require the help of a professional.
- Mayo Clinic: "How fit are you? See how you measure up"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk"
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "3 Field Methods for Assessing Body Composition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly fat in women: Taking — and keeping — it off"
- US Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Journal of Clinical Investigation: "Abdominal obesity: a marker of ectopic fat accumulation"
- Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences: "Repeated measures of body mass index and waist circumference in the assessment of mortality risk in patients with myocardial infarction"