Bottom line: People with BMIs less than 18.5 are underweight. Target BMI range is between 18.5 and 24.9. Overweight is considered between 25 and 30, and a BMI above 30 puts you in the obese category.
Blood pressure. This one is critical to heart health. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, 1 in every 3 Americans has high blood pressure. When a nurse wraps the cuff around your arm, she's taking a reading of the force on the walls of your arteries, which is subject to fluctuating pressure as the heart beats to push blood through your body. The trouble is, high blood pressure doesn't have any telltale symptoms, so a person might be living with hypertension unknowingly. Over the long haul, elevated blood pressure can damage organs and fuel a cascade of problems.
Action to lower blood pressure can include medications, but diet and exercise can really beat those numbers back into submission. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)—high in veggies, fruit, fish, and whole grains but low in red meat fat and sugar—has been shown to lower blood pressure significantly. And research has suggested that the DASH diet packs an especially powerful wallop when people simultaneously work to reduce salt intake, a known blood pressure booster.
Bottom line: "The only number that really matters is 120 over 80," which is the cutoff for a normal blood pressure reading, says Yancy. The more one's blood pressure surpasses that level, the more damage to the vascular system, heart, and kidneys. The top number is called systolic blood pressure and is the measure of pressure while the heart beats. The bottom number is called diastolic and is the measure of pressure between heart beats. A reading above 120/80 but below 140/90 is considered prehypertension; anything above that is high blood pressure. Both require attention and steps to bring the blood pressure back under control.
Cholesterol. Your cholesterol level is a measure of the fats circulating in your bloodstream. With out-of-whack cholesterol levels comes greater risk for coronary artery disease and stroke. Reducing saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and total fat can help bring down your cholesterol level. And exercise, says Whiteson, "is one pill that treats all ills. It can touch all risk factors for heart disease," including reducing weight, reducing stress, improving blood sugar profiles, bringing down high blood pressure, and lowering total cholesterol, lowering LDL (the "bad" cholesterol), increasing HDL (the "good" cholesterol), and lowering tricglycerides, a type of fat in the blood.
Bottom line: You're aiming for total cholesterol below 200 mg/DL; above 240 mg/DL puts you at twice the risk of coronary artery disease as a person within the normal range. HDL should be above 40 mg/DL for men and above 50 mg/DL for women (women tend to have higher HDL before menopause); above 60 mg/DL is categorized as protective to your heart. LDL ideally should be below 100 mg/DL, though up to 129 mg/DL is near optimal. High LDL is considered 160 mg/DL or above. Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/DL; a measure above 200 mg/DL is considered high.
Updated on 3/15/12 by Angela Haupt.