Your employer may suggest them. Your doctor may order them. And your heart may be speaking through them.

So…what are they exactly?

The Number Game

They are biometrics—a collection of numbers that tell you a lot about your overall health and your risk for certain diseases, including heart disease.

Because knowing and improving your biometric scores can greatly improve your overall health, many employers offer incentives like reduced health insurance premiums to employees who get yearly screenings.

Typical biometric screens look at heart disease risk factors like:

  • Weight, height and waist circumference
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood glucose
  • Cholesterol and triglycerides

Knowing and understanding your biometric numbers will give you an idea if you’re at higher risk for heart disease and how you can reduce your risks.

weight - height - waist size

That’s About the Size of It (or You)

Many of us dread heading to the doctor’s scale. But comparing your weight to your height to get your body mass index (BMI) number gives you and your doctor direct clue about your risk for heart disease, heart attacks, and other diseases and conditions—including certain cancers. With that in mind, your health care provider will likely measure your height as well as your weight.

Your BMI helps you know if you are at, below or above a healthy weight for your height. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offer a set of ranges to help you understand your BMI:

  • Underweight range: 18.4 or lower
  • Normal or healthy range: 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight range: 25 to 29.9
  • Obese range: 30 or higher

Because BMI is a rough estimate of body fat, its accuracy gets more questionable for very muscular people—like athletes—as well as the elderly.

Since you really can’t change your height, losing weight is your ticket to improving your BMI. If your BMI is too high, make a plan with your health care provider to gradually lose weight in a healthy manner. Often this means decreasing your intake of sugary, highly refined and fried foods, increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, and getting more physical activity.

This may also include taking a look at your mental well-being and how you handle daily stress—since we’re more likely to make poor lifestyle choices when we’re stressed out.

Don’t ‘Waist’ Body Fat

Another physical measurement that gives insight into your heart health is your waist circumference. While overall body fat is a risk for heart disease, extra fat building up in your abdominal area is an additional risk for coronary artery disease as well as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Unlike BMI, this number doesn’t require a calculator. You or your health care provider can measure your waist with a tape measure placed at your midsection, right above your hips.

Your waist circumference may indicate a higher risk for heart and other disease if:

  • It’s more than 40 inches (for men)
  • It’s more than 35 inches (for nonpregnant women)

The bad news? Because the risk comes from too much body fat, not just in your midsection, crunches and sit-ups won’t cure the problem.

The good news? Reducing your overall body fat will also reduce the fat in your midsection while improving many other risk factors for heart disease, including those indicated by your other biometric numbers.

Talk with your health care provider to make a plan to reduce your overall body fat by making healthful changes to your diet and increasing your daily activity levels.

blood pressure

Blood Pressure

In addition to getting weighed as you arrive at your doctor’s office, you probably are used to having your blood pressure checked. This common practice is a simple way of checking for immediate health concerns as well as risks for heart disease, heart failure and stroke.

Your provider will give you two numbers—something “over” something—which may sound a little odd at first. Here’s what these numbers mean:

  • The top number: This is your systolic number and represents the increased pressure in your arteries, or “plumbing,” when your heart contracts to push blood through your body.
  • The bottom number: This is your diastolic number, which is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is resting between beats.

Think of the numbers as your heart’s working number “over” its resting number. Both numbers are important, and both can indicate if your heart is working overtime. Normal to dangerous ranges include:

Blood pressure table

Courtesy American Heart Association

If your blood pressure is very high, your doctor may suggest lifestyle tips and medication to help get it under control. If you’re in the borderline area, lifestyle and diet changes may be enough to get those numbers into a healthy range.

Those changes include:

  • Reducing your weight to reach a healthy BMI
  • Increasing fresh produce and replacing junk and fried foods with more plant-based foods
  • Making sure you keep your sodium intake below 2,300 mg per day (under 1,500 mg is even better)
  • Enhancing your stress-management skills, which can also help lower your blood pressure

This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your food. Dr. Daniel Ananyev, an integrative medicine specialist at Adventist Health Cherry Park Family Practice, suggests replacing salt by using a little olive oil along with herbs and spices to flavor your food.

And it’s well worth it to make these changes. “A lot of medicines don’t work as well as exercise and weight loss,” Dr. Ananyev says.

blood glucose

Blood Glucose

Many biometric screenings also check for your blood glucose—or “blood sugar”—level. This is a key indicator of how well your body is able to use the carbohydrates you’re eating. Depending on the level, high blood glucose may indicate prediabetes or diabetes.

Common ways of measuring blood glucose involve a blood test to check either your current blood glucose or your hemablobin A1c, which gives a measurement of your average blood glucose level over the past two or three months.

Normal and high ranges vary depending on which test you take. If your levels are high and you don’t have Type 1 diabetes, in which your body doesn’t make enough of the metabolic hormone insulin to process blood sugar, your doctor will suggest ways to improve your blood glucose and avoid or control Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is when your body doesn’t use insulin effectively, leaving too much glucose in your blood.

Even if you don’t have diabetes, you should watch your blood glucose level. Research suggests that even without diabetes, you are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease if your blood glucose levels are too high.

Your choices can help control your blood glucose. One key way is making sure your weight is in a healthy range so your body can better process sugar in your blood. Regular exercise also helps use up blood glucose—and that’s a benefit that usually continues for hours after exercise.

A heart-healthy diet loaded with fresh vegetables, fiber and lean protein will also help your blood glucose levels stay in a normal range.

cholesterol levels

Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Your biometric screenings may also include cholesterol and triglycerides. Typical numbers you may receive include:

  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • Triglycerides

It’s important to understand which numbers you want high and which you want low—and how to improve your numbers to lower your risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance you make on your own. If you eat animal products like meat, eggs and dairy, you also consume cholesterol.

Either kind will contribute to your total cholesterol. High cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of heart and artery disease as well as stroke and heart attack.

LDL cholesterol is the “bad” or dangerous cholesterol that forms sticky deposits that can clog your arteries. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, has a much better reputation because it seems to help remove the sticky LDL cholesterol so your body can get rid of it.

Replacing animal-based foods with more whole, plant-based foods may help you lower your LDL cholesterol. Choosing healthier fats like nuts, avocados, and olive and canola oils and losing a little weight can help raise your HDL.

Like cholesterol, triglycerides come from your body as well as your diet. This type of fat is higher when you eat too many calories or eat foods high in trans and saturated fats. Being overweight or obese is also associated with high triglycerides.

Your doctor may talk to you about trying medication called statins to get your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in a healthy range and reduce your risk of heart disease. Because these medications do come with side effects, Dr. Anabel Facemire, a cardiologist with Northwest Regional Heart & Vascular, encourages patients try lifestyle changes first.

She suggests eating a heart-healthy diet low in trans and saturated fats and high in fiber-rich fresh produce, which can improve your cholesterol and triglyceride biometric numbers. Regular physical activity may also help improve your cholesterol and triglyceride numbers.

The Three Keys: Weight, Diet and Exercise

Even if your biometric numbers aren’t all where you want them, knowing your numbers gives you the power to make wise choices that reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease.

As you can see, there is a common theme when it comes to improving your biometric numbers. Three keys to success include:

  • Keeping your weight in a healthy range
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Being physically active every day

And, fortunately, improving your diet and increasing physical activity naturally helps keep your weight under control. “You can turn this around, even at older ages,” Dr. Facemire says.

But the first step is to be sure you know your numbers. If you’re unsure of your biometric scores, give your primary care provider a call and ask if you’re due for a screening.

The best part about biometric numbers is that they represent risks you can change. And the sooner you make positive changes, the sooner you’ll lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.