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The Ideal Weight Isn't Just About Numbers

Getting as thin as possible shouldn't be the goal. Rather, it's finding the range that lets your body perform at its best--and that may mean gaining muscle poundage.

July 15, 2002|BOB CONDOR | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Most elite athletes develop a clear notion about their ideal weight for performance--and the rest of us mere mortals and recreational athletes can learn from such body awareness.

"Athletes know what weight makes them feel strongest," said Kris Clark, director of sports nutrition at Penn State University in State College, Pa. "When I work with people who are not competitive athletes, I like to ask, 'During your adult life, after college and high school, what was your weight when you felt like you were exercising your best or performing at your best in a job?' The answer is a good starting point for achieving your own 'playing weight.' "

Clark said people too often equate their best weight with school days. That might not be realistic given the demands of adult life, whether it is doing a job or raising children or both. "I recommend setting realistic goals," Clark said. "Not letting your clothes feel tight is an effective and practical goal."

From Barbara Day's perspective, most people simply want to "get as thin as possible." "It's all about what's pretty or skinny," said Day, who is a sports nutritionist and dietitian for Kentucky's University of Louisville athletic teams.

Instead of an exact weight, Day is more inclined to suggest a range that allows you to feel most healthy. Becoming aware of what weight range allows you to feel strong throughout the day or avoid too many colds is a good strategy for anyone, she said. "One formula to determine an ideal or healthy weight is 100 pounds for first 5 feet of height, then add 5 pounds for each inch," Day said.

"But the number can be misleading because it doesn't account for a small, medium or large frame." Body-mass index, or BMI, has become a popular measure among researchers and public health officials. Day called it "just another number," while Clark said it can be useful for many people, especially if they are not highly active. The formula calculates a ratio of weight to height that is designed to estimate body fat.

Strangely enough, BMI might be least valuable for athletes. Proof comes in the singular argument that Michael Jordan at his best playing weight would be considered borderline overweight in the BMI tables. Clark said an entire demographic group, African American women, might be susceptible to BMI scores that are misdirected.

"I look at a female African American athlete and think, 'She is 120, maybe 130 pounds,' " Clark said. "Then it turns out her weight is 150, even 160. The bone mass of active African American women just tends to be much more dense [than that of other ethnic groups]." Admit it or not, many people aim for a certain weight because someone else influences them. Spouses or other family members might top the list. For athletes, a coach can be the persuader.

"I worked with one athlete whose coach wanted him to drop 20 pounds," Day recalled. "The coach thought this player would be quicker at the lower weight. But the problem was, this athlete was already at 5% body fat. He didn't have weight to lose unless it was going to be muscle."

On the other hand, some coaches and athletes themselves can be stubborn about gaining weight. The myth that muscles make you less quick still has a certain amount of staying power. It comes down to gaining the right sort of weight--lean muscle mass rather than fat. Reaching an ideal playing weight follows suit.

"I see soccer players who would gain quickness with more muscle rather than lose it," Clark said. "Plus, they can prevent injuries and build stamina. Muscles help carry the body and support the frame. The player has more power and stamina for his game." Performance has many facets beyond the playing fields and sports courts, Clark said.

All of us benefit from gaining muscle and shedding excess body fat.

"If you lose just 5 pounds of body fat, you will have more blood, oxygen, vitamins and other nutrients for the rest of your body," Day said. "You will feel the difference throughout your day."

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Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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