Is there a link between BMI and COVID-19 outcomes?
Hint: The healthier you are, the better off you’ll be.
From gyms to doctors’ offices, body mass index (BMI) is a hot topic. It’s a measure of body size that compares your height and weight to determine if you’re underweight, overweight or right where you need to be. Too much weight can lead to a variety of health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.
And in the past couple of years, we’ve learned that a high BMI puts you at a higher risk for COVID complications, too.
The Geisinger Obesity Research Institute weighs in.
Anthony Petrick, MD, director of Geisinger’s Bariatric Surgery program, and Chris Still, DO, director of Geisinger’s Nutrition and Weight Management Program, performed a collaborative review of patients with COVID-19 at Geisinger. They found that patients with a BMI of 40 or higher who had bariatric surgery were much less likely to be hospitalized than those who had not had bariatric surgery.
“Modest weight loss protected against hospitalization, ICU admission and even death,” Dr. Petrick says. Oddly enough, people who lost a great deal of weight didn’t have that same protective effect. This could be because they had nutritional complication that made them more susceptible to infection, he explains.
The doctors’ findings are supported by those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which looked at over 140,000 patients with COVID-19 and found that roughly half of them qualified as being obese. Obesity was a risk factor for requiring hospitalization, needing mechanical ventilation in the ICU and even death — especially for patients over 65. Their data was published in March 2021.
When it comes to BMI, how high is too high?
“For an adult, a healthy BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9,” explains Dr. Petrick. “A BMI between 25 and 29.9 indicates you are slightly overweight. But a BMI over 30 means you’re in the obese category, which puts your health at risk.”
You can find BMI calculators and BMI charts online to help you determine where your BMI falls. Higher than it should be? By taking steps to lose weight, you’ll improve your odds of avoiding serious complications related to COVID-19.
What’s in the food you eat?
The standard American diet has become speedy and convenient. But processed foods often lack essential minerals, vitamins and nutrients and have an abundance of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup — plus chemicals to preserve shelf life.
When you cut back on sugary drinks and processed foods, you’re taking a great first step toward better health. Many alcoholic drinks are also high in calories. Instead, fill your grocery cart with things like:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat milk products
- Lean meats and poultry
- Beans and peas
- Nuts and seeds
Looking for meal ideas? Try one of our healthy recipes.
Get moving — even just a little bit more.
When it comes to losing weight, the CDC recommends working your way up to a certain amount of exercise each week. Pick the approach that works best for you:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (your breathing rate is notably faster, but you can still carry on a conversation)
- 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (your heart rate has increased quite a bit, and you’re breathing too hard to carry on a conversation)
- An equal mix of both types of activities.
The key here is working your way up. You don’t need to do it all right away. And remember, even a little more movement than normal can make a major difference.
Things you might not think of as “exercise” count, including:
- Walking — great reason to get a dog!
- Gardening or raking the lawn
- Playing with kids or grandkids
- Biking at a casual pace
Think about writing down what you do, when you do it and how long you do it for. Seeing progress can help you stay on track.
Especially when you start to see results.
When diet and exercise aren’t enough
Geisinger is a nationally recognized Center of Excellence for bariatric surgery. The procedure limits how much food your stomach can hold, helping you to feel full after eating smaller portions. Some procedures also limit the calories that your body can absorb.
If your BMI is over 40 — or if it’s over 35 and you have a related health issue, such as diabetes or sleep apnea — and you don’t have problems with substance abuse, psychosis, eating disorders or uncontrolled depression, bariatric surgery is an option you might want to consider.
“Bariatric surgery requires a sincere commitment to lifestyle changes,” explains Dr. Petrick. “But if you’re ready to take the step, our team is here to help you succeed. A healthy BMI lessens your risk of many medical conditions — and might just keep you out of the hospital if you come down with COVID-19.”
Meet Anthony Petrick, MD
Meet Christopher Still, DO
Learn more about Geisinger’s Bariatric Surgery program
Learn more about Geisinger’s Nutrition and Weight Management program