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Is BMI a good way to measure your health?

And what is BMI, anyway?

Portrait of beautiful young woman having checkup with her female doctor. Medical doctor showing her test results on digital tablet

Remember visiting the doctor as a kid? The first thing they had you do was slip your shoes off so they could get your height and weight. Now that you’re an adult, there’s not always a “My, how you’ve grown!” and a sticker at the end of every doctor’s appointment, but the topic of your weight and height is still a central concern at your annual physical. (Which reminds us: You might not be a kid, but you should still be getting a physical every year.)

Doctors use these measurements to determine your body mass index (BMI), a popular way to determine your level of health.

Keep reading to learn more about BMI, how the insurance industry uses it, and some alternative measurements that might provide a better measurement of your overall health.

In this article:

What is BMI?

Body mass index is one of the measurements of health used by insurers, medical professionals, and others to gauge your overall health level. The index was first used in the 1830s to estimate the average build, though health-related and insurance industries didn’t adopt it until the 1970s.

Your body mass index is a calculation in which your weight is divided by the square of your height in inches, multiplied by 703, and then rounded. (This online BMI calculator does the hard work for you.) If you’re 5’10” (70 inches) and weigh 160 pounds, your BMI is 23.

So, what does that tell you? Your BMI essentially tells you whether you weigh more than, less than, or about the same amount as other people of the same height. A BMI of 23, as in the example above, is right within the “normal weight” category.

Historically, doctors have used BMI as a proxy for your overall level of health, including your likelihood of developing health issues. This is due to  such potential issues as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems, and even certain cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health.

There are four categories for BMI:

Is BMI a good way to measure health?

While BMI can be useful, and has a long history behind it, there are some criticisms of it as well. For starters, BMI doesn’t account for how much fat or muscle you have.

For example, one recently drafted professional football player is 6’0” and weighs 215 pounds. His BMI is 29.2 — technically “overweight.” But suffice it to say, the guy’s photo could be used in the dictionary as the illustration for “ripped,” because much of his weight is muscle.

Instead, many health professionals believe waist size is more influential on health problems than your overall mass. For example, studies have shown that larger waist sizes have more to do with increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes than mass.

Another criticism is that while BMI is often used to estimate your overall level of health, it doesn’t factor in additional health information, such as your level of activity, physical proportions, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and more. A physical exam, whether part of your annual checkup or your life insurance application, will include a more detailed picture of your health than BMI can provide.

Finally, BMI can miss health risks for people of certain races or ethnicities, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

BMI alternatives

Studies suggest there may be other reliable methods for assessing health risks, including the ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement, or just waist size on its own.

The larger the ratio of waist-to-hip is, the higher the risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Waist measurements over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women have been associated with higher health risks.

These measurement methods have shown to be much more accurate in determining the health risks for people considered overweight for their frame. This is because these alternate measurements account for factors associated with individual health, build, and body weight distribution — not just height and weight alone.

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BMI and life insurance

When you are applying for life insurance, an insurer will use all the tools that it can to get a complete picture of your overall health, so that it can accurately assess the risk of insuring you.

These tools may include measuring your height and weight, testing your blood and urine, examining your health history (including prescriptions) and family medical history, as well as any risk factors like smoking or substance abuse. BMI is a small element of the overall picture, much of which is obtained through a life insurance medical exam.

How Haven Life can help

At Haven Life, you have two options when it comes to getting a term life insurance policy. The first is Haven Term. That’s our affordable term life insurance offering, and most applicants will be required to take a life insurance medical exam. (Some might receive instant approval, though issuance of the policy and payment of the death benefit rely on the truthfulness of your answers.)

You can start by getting a free online quote here. And take note: Haven Term can be useful while you’re still living. Eligible Haven Term policyholders enjoy access to Haven Life Plus, a bonus rider that includes access to a wealth of health and wellness services (including a fitness app), many at low- or no-cost.

We also offer Haven Simple — a 100% no medical exam required policy. Again, you need to be truthful during your application. And while no medical exam is required, this means you’ll be limited in life insurance coverage to a still-generous $1 million, and there are some limits on term length and availability in certain states. You can start by getting a quote.

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About Scott Nevil

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Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit:

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