Vital signs are considered critical evaluations of your real-time health. There are also “other numbers” that can also help a doctor to evaluate the current status of your health and your risk of developing future diseases. Let’s call them your lifestyle vital signs.
The four (and a bonus) vital signs
Typically when you go to your doctor for a general health visit or for a “sick visit,” a nurse or medical technician will take four important health measurements: Body temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure.
Body temperature - A normal reading is 98.0 – 98.6F. Elevations or lower readings can signal an infection or other health issues. Baseline body temperatures can vary a bit, so it’s important to know _your_normal baseline body temperature.
Pulse (heart) rate - Typically measured in number of beats per 60 second interval, it’s also used as an assessment of strength. A very slow pulse rate can indicate illness, though robust exercisers typically have lower heart rates. A very fast rate can indicate infection, other health conditions including heart disease, anxiety, or stress. An irregular pulse rate can be indicative of an arrhythmia.
Respiration rate - Typically measured in a sixty second period, 12-16 breaths per minute is considered within normal limits. A rapid breath rate can indicate anxiety, infection, or other health issues. Very shallow respirations could be a sign of asthma, COPD, or congestive heart failure.
Blood pressure (BP) - Though actually not a vital sign, it is usually checked along with the other three evaluations. The systolic or upper number indicates the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body. The diastolic or lower number indicates the pressure inside the artery when the heart is resting and filling up with blood. High BP is linked to coronary heart disease, and when persistent, is linked to an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Lifestyle vital signs
Doctors have limited time with patients, so asking about or measuring these additional “numbers” could offer them key information about current state of health. It can also be a starting point for simple, effective health advice.
The average patient who walks into a doctor’s office will be just fine with a height measurement, but may balk at being weighed. We all take our weight seriously, so seriously in fact, that we don’t want to face reality. Sudden weight gain or weight loss can signal illness. Carrying excess weight or meeting the criteria for being diagnosed with obesity puts you at risk of developing a host of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a number of cancers. Loss of height, often associated with aging, can signal bone density loss and osteoporosis.
BMI or body mass index
Body mass index (BMI) is a more recent tool used to assess health status in relation to height and weight. It calculates body fat based on height and weight. It can indicate acceptable levels of fat, or too high levels of fat, which is linked with risk for lifestyle-related diseases. BMI can be high in bodybuilders due to their muscle mass.
A larger than normal waist size can indicate excess central body fat, even in the presence of a normal weight. Excess abdominal fat can indicate heightened risk of diabetes and heart disease. A man’s waist should measure less than 40 inches, and a woman’s waist measurement should fall below 35 inches.
Minutes of exercise daily/weekly
Knowing certain fitness numbers can help to predict risk of disease, according to a February 2017 study. Exercise helps with weight control, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, prediabetes/diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and several cancers. Regular exercise strengthens bones, builds muscle mass, improves mental health, prevents falls, and supports longevity. So lack of exercise or very limited exercise is quite detrimental to overall health.
Current guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity weekly or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly. Your doctor should question you about exercise and offer exercise prescriptions.
Number of vegetable and fruit servings daily
Doctors need to ask patients about vegetable and fruit consumption because most American diets are filled with way too many processed foods and devoid of nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are filled with antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Food is medicine. The foods you choose to eat can either support or hurt your health. Current guidelines recommend five servings of vegetables and three to five servings of fruit daily.
Number of sleep hours nightly and quality
Recent studies have uncovered just how crucial good sleep habits are. Babies, toddlers, children, teens, and adults all need varying amounts of sleep. Poor sleep habits are associated with a number of health risks including: obesity (because hormone balance is disrupted), poor immune function, cardiovascular disease, increased stress and general inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, poor concentration, depression, increased suicidal ideation, and risk-taking behaviors. Someone who suffers with chronic sleep deprivation also has diminished reaction time, raising the risk of serious car accidents, or as has been seen recently in the news, train accidents. Your doctor should ask about your sleep habits so that he can address any problems and refer you to appropriate sleep specialists.
Frequency of pain
Many patients self-medicate with over the counter pain relief medications, never discussing acute or ongoing chronic pain with their physicians. There also is an ongoing epidemic of opioid use, so the patient may be seeing one doctor, while getting pain relief prescriptions from one or several _other_doctors. Pain can interfere with healthy habits like exercise. Doctors should routinely ask patients about pain.
Dental visits and vitamin/supplement use
These two topics deserve a quick discussion on a regular basis. Poor oral health is associated with increased risk of heart disease. Too many patients take vitamins and supplements “irreverently,” and don’t realize that they may be taking too high doses of certain supplements. Supplements can also interfere with traditional medications. Doctors should inquire about dental visits and which, how many and how often you take vitamins and supplements.
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she’s been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.