What Do Your Health Indicators Mean?

Never have our lives been so ruled by numbers as they are in this day and age, but while our multitude of pins, passwords and personal contacts are important; however, the really vital digits are our health indicators.

From the level of your blood sugar to your waist measurement and much more, these critical figures all reflect how you feel and function – and give warning when your health may be at risk.

health indicators for blood pressure

The good news is that if the figures don’t add up, small and achievable lifestyle tweaks – such as a change in diet and exercise, or drinking and smoking habits – can have a big and positive impact on your health indicators and risk of disease.

Whittle down your waist

80 cm or less is the ideal waist measurement for women. Higher than this shows a raised risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

What It Means

The amount of fat stored around your organs (visceral fat) is thought to be especially harmful, says diabetes nurse Libby Dowling. It may release inflammatory chemicals and/or cause changes in your metabolism that lead to insulin resistance.

For women, a waist circumference over 88cm multiplies the risk of type 2 diabetes threefold, and according to The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, more than 50% of women exceed this measurement.

Can a diet reverse diabetes?

Change Your Measurements

Cut down on carbs – A US study showed this reduced belly fat and increased insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes.

HIIT it! An International Journal of Obesity reports on two groups of women exercising three times a week over 15 weeks, said that those doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) lost significantly more body fat than those exercising at a steady pace.

Add protein to each meal – You burn about 10% more kilojoules digesting protein than you do digesting carbs.

Is your cholesterol higher than 5?

A healthy adult’s total cholesterol should be 5mmol/L or less, with non-HDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ types) at 4mmol/L or less.

What It Means

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the ‘good’ cholesterol that ousts harmful types, which produce plaque that clogs the arteries, from our bloodstream.

The ‘bad’ cholesterols, grouped under the banner of non-HDL, include low-density lipoprotein (LDL), very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), and intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL).

To assess heart-disease risk, doctors look at the non-HDL level, worked out by subtracting the HDL level from your total-cholesterol level.

Triglycerides will also be measured on your fasting blood-fat test. These are another type of fat, stored as energy reserves in cells. High levels have been linked to heart disease. Cholesterols and triglycerides are measured in mmol/L.

Understand The Numbers

An ideal fasting blood-fat profile in mmol/L should be: total cholesterol – 5 (4 if you’re at risk of heart disease); HDL – 1 or more; non-HDL – 4 or less; LDL – 3 or less; and triglycerides – under 2.

Optimise cholesterol and triglyceride levels:

  1. Scale back: Losing just 5 to 10% of your body weight can increase HDL by almost 0,3mmol/L and decrease triglycerides by just over 2mmol/L.
  2. Quit smoking: A 2011 US-based study found that ex-smokers’ levels of the good HDL cholesterol increased by 5% a year after they’d kicked the habit.
  3. Include more plant-based foods in your diet: Plant phytosterols – found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, and vegetable oils – help block the absorption of bad LDL cholesterol in the body.

Is your blood pressure healthy?

120/80 …on average, is the ideal measurement.

What It Means

The first number is systolic blood pressure – it’s the highest pressure, when your heart beats and pushes blood around your body. The second is diastolic blood pressure – it’s the lowest pressure, when your heart relaxes between beats.

Consistently-raised blood pressure (aka hypertension) causes blood vessels to become scarred and less elastic, so the heart has to work harder to pump blood through them. This ups risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney problems and vascular dementia (caused by poor blood supply to brain).

Understand The Numbers

  • 120/80 – 129/84 = normal
  • 130/85 – 139/89 = pre-hypertension
  • 140/90 – 159/99 = mild hypertension
  • 160/100 – 179/109 = moderate hypertension
  • 180/110 or more = severe hypertension

Source: The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa

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Drop your blood pressure:

Cut salt: Reducing intake of salt to less than 5g (1 teaspoon) per day can significantly lower blood pressure.

Step up fruit and veg: They’re rich in potassium, which helps counteract the damaging effects of salt.

Get active: Start with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, or brisk walking) three times a week. Work up to 45 minutes fives times a week.

Be more alcohol savvy: Regularly exceeding about two to three units a day raises blood pressure (one unit is the equivalent of 76ml of wine). Have at least one alcohol-free day a week, and choose low-alcohol drinks where you can.

Invest in a home monitor

Hypertension is often called the ‘silent killer’ because it shows no symptoms until it’s already done the damage. Keep tabs with Clicks’ fully-automatic Blood Pressure Monitor, R399.

Could you be low in vitamin D?

75 nmol/L is considered the optimal level of vitamin D to have in our blood. When we expose ourselves to sunlight, our skin uses the sun’s rays to naturally produce this vitamin.

Why It Matters

Vitamin D is vital for healthy bones and a strong immune system. According to increasing – but still inconclusive – evidence, it may also help to protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, MS, and other chronic illnesses. Deficiency in it may, in fact, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and can also cause fatigue and depression.

Deficiency in it may, in fact, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and can also cause fatigue and depression.

Understand The Numbers

“Opinion is divided on the optimal blood level,” observes GP Dr Helga Rhein. Experts generally agree that below 30nmol/L is too low, and 50nmol/L is sufficient, but there’s also research suggesting the optimal level is at least 75nmol/L.

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Raise Your Vitamin D Levels:

Seek (a little) sun: Expose bare skin to sunlight for around half the time it takes you to burn. This could be about 10 minutes for fair-skinned people, and up to 30 minutes for those with darker complexions. As you get older though, or if you’re overweight, your body is less efficient at making vitamin D, so supplementation then is vital.

Supplement it: Particularly in winter, when you spend more time indoors. Adults should take about 5µg (micrograms) per day, but this dose can be increased to between 10 and 15µg per day if you’re over 50 – for the latter, try Biogen Vitamin D3 (R74,95 for 120 capsules, Dis-Chem), which contains just under 13µg vitamin D.

Eat oily fish: Tuck into snoek, pilchards, sardines, tuna or salmon – all great sources of vitamin D – at least twice a week.

Are you at risk of diabetes?

42 mmol/mol or less is the ideal target result of an HbA1c test, indicating your blood-glucose levels for the past three months.

What It Means

This once-off blood test, costing around R229, is being increasingly requested by GPs to check for diabetes, rather than the traditional route: a fasting test that’s followed by another test after a glucose drink to see how high levels rise.

The HbA1C shows your level of blood glucose over the past three months. Persistently-raised blood glucose is a sign of insulin resistance.

Insulin is supposed to be used to convert sugar in blood to energy for cells, but when certain cells don’t use insulin effectively, blood sugar builds up; this is insulin resistance, sometimes known as pre-diabetes.

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Understand The Numbers

For an HbA1c test: below 42mmol/mol is the norm; 43 to 47mmol/mol indicates a higher risk of diabetes; while 48mmol/mol and over shows you have diabetes.

If you choose to do a fasting blood-glucose test, which, although cumbersome, does cost less (around R58), results are: 4 to 5,6mmol/L is normal; 5,7 to 6,9mmol/L may indicate pre-diabetes; and more than 7mmol/L diagnoses diabetes.

Reduce risk: Yes, it’s about keeping weight down (again). Losing weight can eliminate the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in 80% of cases, says diabetes nurse Libby Dowling.

Manage stress with yoga: In a 2014 Japanese study, one-hour yoga sessions once a week over 12 weeks were shown to substantially lower the participants’ blood-glucose levels.

Get moving: Doing moderate aerobic exercise (30 minutes a day, five times a week) can make our bodies more sensitive to insulin, helping lower blood-glucose levels.

60-100 beats per minute is a normal resting heart rate (pulse). If it’s below or above this, or irregular, speak to your GP.


Your body mass index (BMI) is a simple weight-for-height guide indicating whether or not you are carrying the right amount of weight for your build.

The World Health Organisation classifies a BMI of 18,49 and below as underweight, between 18,5 and 24,99 as normal, between 25 and 29,99 as overweight, and 30 and above as obese. Pick n Pay has a handy BMI calculator on their website; see picknpay.co.za/bmi-calculator

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Many GPs use the Framingham Heart Study risk algorithm to predict their patients’ likelihood of developing heart disease over the next 10 years, and make referrals to cardiologists, where necessary.

This American study has pinpointed the major risk factors for heart disease, including: gender, age, total and HDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, smoking and diabetes status.

By entering figures related to these into the algorithm, a point value is calculated. A score from 0 to 9 indicates a low risk, 10 to 14 shows a medium risk, and people who score 15+ are at a high risk.


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