Having been on a long weight-loss journey, Julia Long turned to the internet to try and gauge a sensible weight loss goal to achieve before summer.

"I know I shouldn't google these sort of things but we all do it and my BMI told me that I need to lose 35kg, which is unrealistic and dangerous," Ms Long says.

"I feel like it sets a goal that can't be maintained."

The BMI (Body Mass Index) test uses a person's weight and height to calculate their structure. This gives a number which will determine whether they are underweight, average, overweight or obese.

Advertisement

Ms Long, 31, is among many women, men and teens that use Google to get fitness tips and calculate their BMI.

With the aim of achieving that "summer body" set in many brains, do we really know what healthy looks like?

The goal for many is to be slim, toned and fit so they can rock a bikini (or Speedos).

When desperation hits, people often search for guides like "how to get fit in six weeks" and "workouts to lose belly fat" - as well as the good old BMI test.

But the real dilemma is people's reliance on BMI as a guide that can simply be googled, prompting us to question how accurate it really is.

"Gyms and personal trainers are costly and take time, surely there is some sort of formula that we can use ourselves to find out if we're on the right track?" Ms Long says.

What's wrong with BMI?

One of the main criticisms of BMI is that it is based on white Europeans and their typical diet and lifestyle. And the fact that it was created in the 1800s.

Dr Mark Fulcher, a sports and exercise medicine physician, was a team doctor for New Zealand Olympic teams when they travelled to Beijing and London.

"BMI does not take the individual's individual characteristics into account but broadly compares them to their peers," Dr Fulcher says.

"I know Japan has looked into this and developed a BMI range for Japanese people, but still it only considers weight and height."

Dr Fulcher works with a lot of Pasifika people, who also have very different diets from European cultures. This means their BMI will be very different from "the average European's BMI" but that does not necessarily mean that other cultures are unhealthy.

Dr Fulcher also added that in America, they are looking at making the BMI higher to accommodate for the number of overweight people in society.

Another factor that BMI does not consider is muscle mass. People who are heavy according to the scales are considered obese, whether or not they have muscle or are genuinely carrying extra unhealthy kilos.

"Many of the athletes I see are overweight on BMI measurements but are clearly not unhealthy," Dr Fulcher says.

Renee Diment is a personal trainer who works with individuals and groups to get them into shape.

"I'm not a strong believer in it [BMI]. I like to focus on body fat and take measurements with a tape measure, and then you can see if they have gained fat or muscle," she says.

BMI also does not consider the person's gender, which would make a big difference.

"Particularly when males and females are separated in every other type of category, they should definitely each have their own BMI chart," Ms Diment says.

"Also taking in a person's age into consideration is really crucial too, as everyone should have a different goal weight depending on their age and their lifestyle."

So if BMI does not consider ethnicity, muscle, gender, or age then why is it still used?

"It is simple and easy to measure. It is cheap and has been well studied," says Dr Fulcher.

"But this is definitely not the only thing that we need to consider when determining if a person is healthy."

So what can be used instead?

Brittany Masterson, 20, always keeps being fit and healthy a top priority.

"Whether I go hard-out at the gym or just go for a walk, I always make time to fit some kind of exercise into my day. I also try to eat as healthily as possible.

"But I always allow myself treats, because you have to live, too."

Ms Masterson always finds a balance between work, university studies and her social life while incorporating her healthy lifestyle.

As a gym member, she tries to focus on the physical changes she sees over her BMI.


Brittany Masterson doesn't worry too much about her BMI and tries to focus on keeping fit and healthy by eating right and exercising often. Photo / Alessandra Graham

"Without the proper understanding it could be discouraging to see the scales and your BMI go up, even though a person has gained muscle not fat," says Miss Masterson.

According to professionals, this is true.

Miss Diment says that determining whether you are fit and healthy is more about how you feel and your ability, than what the scales say.

"You could run everyday and still be a little bit overweight so the BMI would class you as unhealthy, even if you're actually really fit."

Dr Fulcher also added that often people who carry a little bit of weight don't have too much to worry about, if they are still feeling fit and healthy.

"BMI is a useful tool, but not when used in isolation. There are other more important things than body weight.

"For example we know that active 'fat' people are 'healthier' often when compared with skinny sedentary people," says Dr Fulcher.

So is there nothing that we can google?

According to dietitian Jess Moulds, not really.

"There's lots of fancy equations that you can google but it all comes down to the same thing: everyone is different.

"And that's why its important to talk to a professional otherwise it can be quite disheartening," says Ms Moulds.

As a dietitian, Miss Moulds looks at a range of factors including genes, lifestyle, culture and background and makes a judgment call from that information.

"BMI is just not a very accurate way to tell if someone is overweight or not.
It definitely can't be used as a blanket prescription for everyone because everyone is so different," says Ms Moulds.

This sadly leads to the conclusion that there is no real way of determining whether or not you are fit and healthy by using Google.

Miss Masterson recommends setting goals throughout the year that force you to keep fit, like half-marathons.

"If I have a goal in mind I find it motivating. Who cares if you run or walk you're still being active," she says.

"People have to view exercising as a lifestyle change over a short-term change.

"Then they won't be worrying about BMI."

- nzherald.co.nz