8 health numbers you should know


Sometimes, going to the doctor for your annual physical can feel like a numbers game.

One number is too high, the next too low, and it's all just medical jargon to you.

But it's important to know what those numbers mean for your health, and how you can change them for the good. For each set of numbers, the meaning may depend on a person's gender, age, activity, diet and other lifestyle characteristics.

"It's good for people to have self-awareness on a lot of levels," said Lisa Laramy, R.N., Wellness at Work program manager for Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield, Mass. "It's good for people to have a baseline to know what's normal."

From figuring out a resting heart rate to the deadly triad for cardiovascular disease, local officials weigh in on eight numbers you should understand when it comes to your health:

What does the high and low number on a blood pressure reading mean?

The top is the systolic number that measures pressure when the heart is contracting. The lower is the diastolic number that measures the pressure in the arteries between beats. Kim Tulloch, nurse practitioner at the Battenkill Valley Health Center in Arlington, Vt., suggests keeping the readings at 120mm Hg over 80mm Hg and below.

"Normally, if you go to a doctor's office and blood pressure is above 140mm Hg over 90mm Hg, we'll start treatment, but if it's [not that bad] we'll try lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating better, etc.," she said.

If the heart muscle is working harder to contract and eject blood, then it can become enlarged. As people age, the readings naturally increase, within reason, Tulloch said.

According to the American Heart Association, more attention is given to the systolic number because it's a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease for people over 50 years old.

How do you figure out your resting heart rate?

Press two fingers, pointer and index, to the neck or underside of the wrist and count each beat for 15 seconds, Tulloch said. Multiply the number of beats counted by four and that's the heart rate or beats per minute.

According to the National Institute of Health, a resting heart rate for children 10 years and older and adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute. For well-trained athletes, it should be between 40 and 60 beats per minute.

Laramy is a personal trainer as well and said she focuses on the heart rate when working with clients out of cardiac rehab or if it's relevant to their health history, and athletes. It gives her an idea of how they're feeling during the workout and its intensity.

What's a healthy blood sugar level?

For a healthy nondiabetic, Tulloch suggests a blood sugar level between 70 to 100 mg/dL. It's measured in milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood. Once food is consumed, blood sugar increases, but then comes down within a few hours, Tulloch said.

If blood sugar is too high, a number of things can happen. One might feel thirsty, hungry, have dry itchy skin, feel tired or sleepy, have blurry vision, breathing problems or feel sick to their stomach, according to the Vermont Department of Health. If blood sugar is too low, one might feel shaky, nervousness or anxiety, irritability, hunger or nausea and light-headedness.

What are triglycerides?

"Natural fats and oils that we have in our blood from the foods that we eat," Tulloch said. "If they're elevated, it increases the risk of stroke."

A person with high triglycerides may be overweight, not getting enough exercise and consuming fatty foods, Tulloch said.

As long as they're 150mg/dL and below, Tulloch said there's nothing to worry about. If it rises, your doctor will suggest lifestyle changes, such as eating better and exercising more frequently.

She added that having high triglycerides often gets paired with high cholesterol.

What is a healthy blood cholesterol?

Just like any other health factor, maintaining a low blood cholesterol number will lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Below 200mg/dL is a desired cholesterol level, Tulloch said. The American Heart Association suggests adults over 20 years old should get their cholesterol checked every four to six years. The total cholesterol score is calculated based on HDL (good cholesterol) plus LDL (bad cholesterol) plus 20 percent of an individual's triglyceride level.

"Diet really drives cholesterol," Laramy said. "It's one of the most important things aside from exercise. People think the cholesterol is from fat, but it's more about the sugar and carb content in the diet. Nutrition and looking at these values is really key."

What's a healthy BMI and how important is it?

Body Mass Index is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight that depends on gender. It does not take muscle mass into account.

For example, a person who is 5 feet 9 inches and weighs between 125 and 168 pounds, with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is a healthy weight. A person at that height who weighs 169 to 202 pounds can be considered overweight with a BMI of 25 to 29.9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tulloch says she uses the BMI scale for those who should be concerned about their weight, otherwise she doesn't mention it.

"There's tons and tons of holes [in the BMI scale]," Laramy said. "For a really athletic individual, they'll be disappointed. [BMI] calls people healthy who aren't. [They may be] carrying all their weight in the middle, which puts them at high risk for heart disease and it's disheartening being told they have a healthy BMI."

A healthy BMI, Tulloch said, is 25 or lower. If it's lower than 20, it's risky, she added.

How many hours of sleep do you need?

Seven to eight hours is the amount to aim for. Tulloch said if the time consistently decreases, it could increase cholesterol, triglycerides and raises the cortisol level in the blood.

"It affects our health in general, not getting enough sleep day after day," Tulloch said. "It affects the central nervous system and our mood, and doesn't give everything a chance to rest and reboot."

How much should you exercise?

Tulloch recommends 30 minutes per day of consistent activity with the ultimate goal of an hour.

"Sitting is the new smoking and some of us sit around on our rear ends all day long," Tulloch said.

Those who have sedentary jobs should get up every hour to stretch and walk around, according to Tulloch.

Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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