If you want to maximize your chances of following through on your New Year's resolution to lose weight and get fit, then you need to start tracking your progress. Doing so will give you a clear picture of where you are in relation to your goals, which is much better than some fuzzy notion of feeling like you're doing well. But pile on too many metrics and it's easy to get lost in all the data. Here are the five most important health and fitness numbers to strive for in 2012.
What: Your total cholesterol – which includes both "good" HDL and "bad" LDL cholesterol – should be below 5.2 millimoles per litre of blood.
Why track it: "Every adult should be aware of their lipid levels," says Dr. Andy Wielgosz, a cardiologist and spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Knowing your cholesterol levels will help you understand just how at risk you are for several conditions, and just how much you need to reduce your cholesterol, which can be done with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, Dr. Wielgosz says.
Health risks: "High cholesterol contributes to the build up of atherosclerosis, or plaque, which is that mucky stuff that plugs up the arteries. And that can result in strokes, heart attacks and pain in the legs," Dr. Wielgosz. It can also cause aneurysms.
What: Canada's latest physical activity guidelines, introduced earlier this year, recommend that adults 18 to 64 get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity each week.
Why track it: Many of us don't make time for exercise, so we need to be diligent. More than half of Canadian adults are now deemed to be physically inactive. At the same time, obesity levels and the rates of several diseases, including many types of cancer and Type II diabetes, are on the rise. Be very conscious of when you're exercising if you want to meet your goal of getting fit, says Audrey Hicks, former president of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, which created the guidelines. "Scheduling physical activity into your weekly routine is probably much more likely to find success than just doing it if you find the time," she says.
Health risks: Regular physical activity reduces your risk of chronic diseases, including hypertension, high blood-glucose levels, high blood-lipid levels and can even improve a person's mental health, Dr. Hicks says. Inactivity has been linked to several types of cancers, obesity and Type II diabetes, among other diseases and conditions.
140 over 90
What: The measure of blood pressure over which is considered high.
Why track it: High blood pressure, or hypertension, "still remains the No. 1 risk for premature death in Canada, in North America and in the world," says Dr. Ross Feldman, president of Hypertension Canada. One in five adults have hypertension, according to Statistics Canada. As a measure of overall cardiovascular health, there is no better metric than blood pressure. Ideally, your systolic pressure, or top number, should be between 115 to 120, Dr. Feldman says, "but there's no evidence that lowering your blood pressure below 140 over 90 is of any benefit unless you have diabetes."
Health risks: "The most direct risk is with stroke," Dr. Feldman says. Other risks include to coronary heart disease and kidney disease, he says.
60 to 90
What: The normal range of an adult's resting heart rate, as measured in beats per minute.
Why track it: Your resting heart rate is a good indicator of your overall cardiovascular efficiency. Very fit athletes, for instance, can see their resting heart rate in the 40s, says Dr. Hicks. "It's an indication of the strength of your heart muscle," she says. If you want to know how fit you are, there are few easier ways to measure than by getting a watch, finding your pulse and calculating your resting heart rate.
Health risks: "If somebody routinely has a resting heart rate above 90 beats per minute they should probably get themselves checked by a doctor because it could be reflective of some sort of problem with the heart itself," Dr. Hicks says.
What: The turning point from normal weight to overweight on the BMI scale.
Why track it: The Body Mass Index is a measure of body fat based on a person's height and weight (to calculate your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in metres.) People with a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 are considered normal weight. Those with a BMI of 25 or higher are considered overweight, while 30 or higher means you're obese. Nearly one-quarter of Canadian adults are now obese, according to Statistics Canada. "There's no question that as BMI per se increases, unless you're growing taller, then that's generally associated with increased health risk," says Dr. Robert Ross, director of the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Queen's University.
Health risks: "It's hard to think of any kind of morbidity [not associated with increased BMI]" Dr. Ross says.
Editor's Note: Body mass index is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of his or her height in metres. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.