BMI, Health and Fitness: Numbers Aren’t Everything

By: Nickie Hayes

The fitness, health and wellness industry is full of misconceptions, outdated information and misleading remarks. Have you ever heard of BMI before? Well, that is just one of the things that is highly debated in this field. 

If you want to learn some truths about this tool, alternative methods and what the numbers mean, keep scrolling. 

Edward Schaeffer has been in the fitness industry for about 30 years, and is now the owner of Strength for Life Wellness Center in Red Oaks Mill, New York. 

Pictured is Edward Schaeffer. Photo provided by Edward Schaeffer.

Schaeffer said he does not put emphasis on body mass index with his clients, but he does get many questions about it. “While being a tool that can be used in a reasonable way, I think it has a lot of flaws and I really don’t like to focus on that,” he said. 

The majority of the time, Schaeffer’s clients come to him with questions about BMI after visiting their doctor’s office. They are either considered overweight or obese, according to the chart, and aren’t sure what to do with that information. He explains that he himself is in the overweight category on the BMI chart, but in actuality, he is the farthest thing from unhealthy.  

These types of questions bring up conversations he enjoys having with his clients. “Much like the scale, it tells you some things. But it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know,” he said. 

Vista Beasley is an assistant professor at SUNY Brockport who teaches sport and exercise psychology. She said she doesn’t focus on teaching BMI particularly, but it does come up in class discussions. During these lessons, Beasley and her students examine how labels, such as BMI chart ratings, influence assumptions about oneself. 

Ashley Rios, a personal trainer and nutrition coach with a decade of experience, has been in the online space for about two years since the pandemic hit. Check her out at

Pictured is Ashley Rios. Photo by Hudson Valley Wedding and Elopement Photography. 

When working with her clients, Rios doesn’t take a BMI measurement when starting a new program. However, a fair portion of her clients do come to her with weight loss and becoming healthier overall in mind. Her approach when helping clients is to focus on health and not so much the numbers.

Mario Fontana has been an assistant professor at SUNY Brockport for six years, focusing in sport and exercise psychology and sociology. 

Fontana said BMI comes up in his exercise psychology course when talking about motivation and in the general introductory courses, but there’s not an extensive focus on it. 


According to Schaeffer, all BMI really does is compare your height and weight, and based on many averages, puts you in a category. However, he emphasizes that your body weight doesn’t take into account what that mass is made up of. For example, those with a favorable body composition, with a low level of body fat, but a higher level of muscle mass, will still end up in an unfavorable category on the BMI chart because that muscle mass weighs much more. 

Schaeffer said this is why BMI may be outdated or misleading. People work hard to build muscle for the health benefits like protection and increased performance, but find a BMI chart and think they need to lose weight to fit into a category, which just isn’t the case. 

On the other side of the spectrum, “Skinny fat,” Beasley said, is someone who looks like they are a healthy weight by societal standards, but is probably fairly weak, using dieting to get to the “so called healthy weight.” Those who rely on dieting may look a healthy weight and according to the BMI chart are considered a healthy weight, but aren’t actually in good shape. 

Fontana said BMI is not his favorite, but he understands the reasoning behind use of the tool. For example, the use of it as a data point in addition to many other factors, when determining health. 

“For whatever reason, socially, BMI kind of took off as this end-all be-all indicator of a person’s health, and I think that’s maybe more problematic,” he said. 

In most cases for the general population, BMI will be a good indicator of health status. However, there are flaws within that system, and it hasn’t been changed or updated for a long time, Rios said. “That’s where it becomes a little outdated in my mind,” she said. 

Rios tries to move away from a focus on numbers, where hyperfixation can occur. Though BMI can definitely indicate if someone may be at risk for health conditions, she said, there’s a lot of things it doesn’t account for. 

In a research project studying 171 hikers who wanted to attempt the Appalachian Trail, Beasley took their BMI’s before starting the over-2,000 mile trek. A lot of the individuals in the study were considered overweight or obese according to their BMI. However, “plenty of them finished,” she said. The point here is that you may very well be overweight or obese, and this label may indicate that you need to think about your weight because it could indicate unhealth, but it doesnt impair your capabilities, she said. 


Not properly understanding BMI charts or even just relying on your weight on the scale to determine your health can cause some drastic consequences. Schaeffer said most people he’s encountered who end up wanting to try to lose weight “go on some calorie restricting diet” and essentially starve themselves. 

He said you’ll end up losing the weight, but you lose the lean muscle too. “In doing so, you make yourself more prone to injuries, you reduce your performance, you lower your metabolic rate. It can spiral in the wrong direction all to fit into a category, which really isn’t that important to begin with.”

Instead of looking at a BMI chart or weighing yourself constantly, Schaeffer has other methods he recommends to his clients. If you are looking for a more concrete way of measuring progress at home, he thinks the most practical method is to see how your clothes are fitting. For example, he said that, while training in an eight week program, an individual might put on five pounds of muscle, but at the same time, lose 6 pounds of fat mass. The scale only sees a one pound difference, but your clothing size might have decreased by two. “That is much more powerful than looking at a chart,” he said. 

He also said keeping tabs on how you are feeling and using your intuition is also a powerful tool. Don’t forget to just listen for what your body is telling you during the process.  

Fontana believes that, instead of looking at your BMI to determine your health, look at factors such as your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, VO2 max or how much oxygen is in your blood, and what your body is made up of: muscle mass and body fat percentage. 

Also, he said it’s important to not let social factors, like what body types are in style, shift your mindset on what being healthy is or looks like. 

Beasley takes a different approach and said when determining health status, you can’t just look at physical health, mental health must also be included. She said someone may pass every physical health test with flying colors, but that doesn’t mean they are feeling good about themselves. Physical health measures aren’t going to pick up mental health issues. Additionally, the activities of daily living are significant measures of health. For example, she brings up the functional abilities of being able to walk up a flight of stairs without falling short of breath or being able to stand up on your own. She said that all these factors are essential to detecting areas one needs some help in, and BMI just doesn’t tell you enough. 

Person going up stairs. Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash.

Rios said she’s a big fan of looking at her work from a behavioral standpoint. When someone is trying to get a better understanding of their health, there are a few key things she recommends. She encourages starting to look at your food intake and what you may be missing, but also being mindful of your eating habits. This may include how you’re eating, like if you are actually sitting down and taking time out of your day when you eat. Similarly, she also said it’s important to look at how active you are during the day. How much are you moving throughout the day?

“(Getting) steps and walking are probably one of the most underrated things in my opinion,” she said. Find ways to increase your movement. Rios said getting 5,000 to 10,000 steps in a day is a pretty clear sign that someone is health conscious and moving adequately throughout the day. 

Finally, she recommends doing 90 to 150 minutes of exercise per week. She said if all these things are done, you probably don’t even have to worry about your health status. 

Where do you fall? Do you do some of these things or none at all? Keeping these in mind may help you determine your health status without even looking at a BMI chart. 

Besides these, Rios likes to take progress photos and body measurements. As well, some of her clients weigh in, but not all, depending on what their goals are. However, the progress photos along with the measurements are the main indicators she likes to check in with about every four to six weeks. 

Let’s also put emphasis on the fact that progress check ins are every four to six weeks. “Trying to get out of the quick fix mindset is my life’s work,” Rios said. The process of becoming sustainably healthier is going to take much longer. Realistically it’ll likely take six to 12 months or more, which no one wants to hear. She’s not into fad diets or quick fixes. Living a long healthy life requires major lifestyle changes. 

Fontana said that when someone is exploring their health status they may want to ask themselves what healthy behaviors am I exhibiting? As well as, am I putting aside time for my health? Am I limiting unhealthy foods? That may look like taking a walk, going on a bike ride, making sure to not be sedentary and considering what your day-to-day diet looks like. The other side of it, he said, is understanding that improving your health comes with time. 

This seems to be a common theme, but it is truly essential to acknowledge. Fontana stresses the misconception that you need to see real results in a short amount of time and if you’re not, that you’re doing things wrong, which is not the case. 

Instead he said you have to say to yourself, “I must be engaging in those behaviors for a long period of time.” Rather than thinking about it on a daily basis, think of it on a weekly basis and start small, he said. You’re working toward sustainability or being able to maintain these smaller goals, and creating healthy behaviors or habits over a long period of time. 


Picture of the scale. Photo by Samuel Ramos on Unsplash.

There is just more to it; weight isn’t everything. There are so many other factors that go into the change process, like changing habits. 

BMI may be helpful, but for the average person it’s probably better to just look at the long-term and the bigger picture. Rios said that it’s also important to identify where you’re spending your time each day. She uses a daily habits exercise to keep her clients thinking about their goals and understanding whether their habits are “good, bad or neutral,” while working toward their goals. 

Anyone who is struggling with being overweight or obese may find BMI measurements useful, Rios said. She points out it could be a major wake up call for someone who may be bordering the line of major health issues. Though, most people don’t need a BMI number to tell them that, she said. 

Most people who are unhealthy, overweight or obese already know that they are, Rios said. However, they might not be at the point where they’re willing to put in the work to change that or they may not be convinced of why it’s so important quite yet, she said. 

Fontana believes the larger issue present is the average person using BMI as a health indicator, and how in our country there are unrealistic body expectations. “I think BMI is not helping that,” he said. If you’re living a healthy lifestyle, Fontana said it’s OK to have body fat. All of us are going to have it. However, he does make a distinction that there is an obesity epidemic in the country.. With that, he said there needs to be a more nuanced conversation about what being healthy is and looks like. 

BMI just doesn’t account for a lot of things and even though we all love things that are simple, our health is not one of those things, Fontana said. 

Though, he said if you wanted to use it as a starting point to get a grasp of what’s going on with your body, there’s no real harm in doing so. However, there are many steps that need to be taken after that. If you are 30 pounds overweight, you may want to ask yourself if those extra pounds are hindering you, he said. 

“I think scales are one of the worst things we can have in a household,” he said. However, that being said, there is a time to consider the numbers on the scale. For instance, if you gain 20 pounds in one year, you may want to consider your lifestyle habits and if these will be a detriment to your health. Although, if you are persistently weighing yourself daily or multiple times per day, you may end up letting a number determine your self worth. “All it is, is one data point of what your health is in a given moment,” he said, and it does not determine your value as a person. 

“They’re (BMI and the scale) fine tools, but when we are using those as a judge on our success, we fail ourselves,” Fontana said. 

On the other hand, Beasley believes because BMI is being bashed and ignored, people arent recognizing the harmfulness of being obese. Some may say things like “well everyone looks like me,” she said. It’s becoming normalized to be overweight and obese, she said, so they dont see themselves as unhealthy. 

Beasley believes that BMI is misinterpreted, but not outdated or misleading, as BMI is a pretty good indicator of health, she said. Again, she highlights it doesn’t take into account your capability or how muscular you are, but BMI is just looking at what is considered a healthy weight. That extra weight someone may be carrying around, even if they are an incredible athlete, may be bad for their joints and long term health issues, she said. “The BMI is not meant to say whether someone is fit or strong or exercising a lot, it’s really just talking about a healthy weight,” she said. 

Beasley said if you take it from the medical or pain perspective, someone with a high BMI might be more prone to use medications later for pain, have heart problems or be at a higher risk for hypertension, even if they are fit and athletic. 

The numbers might mean nothing right now, but “You might be overweight when you’re 20 and you might be overweight when you’re 30, but it doesnt catch up with you until you’re 40 and now you’re having to take blood thinners,” she said. 

It’s a tool that you can use, especially for clinical use, to be aware of those long term effects. 


Pictured is an Instagram icon. Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash.

Rios believes that putting emphasis on BMI or the scale in the media can be harmful. That’s why she likes to focus on creating good habits and skills, instead of a number. The media tends to portray there is a certain way you are supposed to look and that body type is easy to achieve, when it’s really not. 

“Comparison is the route of unhappiness,” Fontana said. When we compare ourselves to other people, other things or even past versions of ourselves, we may start to use these comparisons as a determinant of whether we are good or bad. 

If you see someone in the media saying that the perfect body easy to achieve, they’re definitely lying to you, Rios said. There’s always going to be sacrifices and these are usually hidden or kept secret. There are costs to maintaining a certain body type, she said. It is achievable, but again, it takes time, effort and commitment. 

Rios adds that, when people recognize the effort needed to maintain certain body types, they usually realize that isn’t really what they want. There has to be a deeper meaning behind your goals, and that’s what’ll drive you to reach your goals, she said. A social media post is certainly not going to give you what you want or need. 

Fontana also said it may be harmful to seek fitness or health advice from your favorite influencers, as you are only seeing the social media presence they want to portray. “They’re only showing you what they want you to see,” he said. 

“I loathe mirror selfie culture,” he said. Posting your body on social media as an attempt to hold yourself accountable for working out everyday is extremely unhealthy. It can put people into a mindset where they think they only have value because they “look better,” he said. It’s a lie that our bodies only have value when we are physically fit. If we take the journey to become healthier, we should do it because we love ourselves, he said. 


Doing online research. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash.

Schaeffer recommends a few different resources for reliable health information such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the Harvard Newsletter or the Mayo Clinic. These may be reliable sources, but they can easily be misinterpreted and confusing for the average person. Additionally, he said to read and talk to people who’ve been successful. 

Rios said in terms of nutrition, Precision Nutrition is a great place to find easy, digestible articles with helpful infographics, visuals and documents to help you on the daily to reach your nutrition goals. She received her nutrition coaching certification from Precision Nutrition. 

In terms of exercise, Rios recommends going to a personal trainer. However, there’s also a lot of research to do if this is something you would consider. Rios said, in the online space especially, there are certain things to look for in a personal trainer or fitness coach. This includes things like if the trainer would be a good fit for you, the trainer’s credentials and certifications and if they have testimonials to back up what they are saying. 

Also, she said to not fall into the trap of influencers who don’t actually have any credentials or who aren’t certified. Safety and injury prevention is of the highest priorities for an educated coach or personal trainer, which you won’t get from a cookie cutter workout plan from an influencer. You’ll get a better quality experience with an individualized exercise prescription from an accredited trainer or coach. 

Furthermore, Rios emphasizes the relationship component. You may be working with this person for a significant period of time, and you’ll want someone you can truly make a connection with. There’s no harm in not liking a trainer, you may just need to find someone who you can better connect with. Really liking the person and having similar values is almost as important as their credibility, Rios said. 

Beasley said when finding factual health and wellness information, it may be good to find someone who will force you to think of the other side because both sides have evidence and importance. What’s the counterargument? 

When seeking out health, exercise or nutrition advice, Fontana says the best way to go about it is to talk to a lot of people in the industry. Always talk to more people, interact with them and continue to learn more. Join local fitness clubs, join a local fitness facility, meet people who make you feel good and always continue to try new things to see what works best for you. 

There’s a lot to take in here, but think about what resonates with you. How can you apply this to your own life? 

Navigating through the fitness industry can be difficult on your own. BMI isn’t all bad, and it may be good to know, but let’s not focus too much on the numbers. 

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