The way we think about weight has changed substantially over the last 20 years. Instead of focusing on just one thing (appearance), fitness professionals today focus on whats underneath the surface, things like cholesterol and body mass index (BMI). It’s perfectly normal for someone who feels they are overweight to pass with flying colors while their skinny-as-a-rail counterpart may not fair so well and can even be susceptible to things like high cholesterol! Still, the debate over the perfect weight and figure continues (and probably always will), but the one thing more and more doctors agree on is that your optimal weight is totally unique and will vary greatly from person to person.

In a 2013 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the conclusion seemed to be made that being overweight did not necessarily equal poor health. In fact the study showed that people up to 30 pounds overweight were less likely to die early than those at an average weight. Upon closer investigation, however, there were many flaws discovered in the report and the conclusions have mostly been discredited, but this did bring to light the important fact that weight can affect people’s health in different ways depending on their genetic make-up, lifestyle, etc. Instead of focusing solely on ideal weight, more attention is brought to happy weight—the weight at which a person feels, well, happy. This doesn’t mean throwing out your diet and gym membership. It means finding the weight that’s right for you, where your activity level matches your lifestyle and you feel generally healthy. But be warned: in some cases happy weight and ideal weight may be one and the same.

Nearly one third of the world’s population is believed to be overweight, which makes them susceptible to health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, and can even lead to serious ailments like heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. And the risks only increase as we get older. Going up just one skirt size between the age of 25 and 55 will make you more likely to develop breast cancer post-menopause.

One concern among doctors is that the idea of “happy weight” is causing people to stall in their weight loss efforts. Instead of pushing to lose the extra pounds that are putting their bodies at risk, many people are quick to conform to their current weight citing genetics or body type (I’m just built this way). On the other end of the spectrum, many people find themselves taking unhealthy measures to achieve a weight that is not only unrealistic, but can actually lead to new health risks. This is why we need to stop talking about “happy weight” and “ideal weight” and focus our attention instead on “healthy weight.”

Healthy weight allows for those unique factors such as genetics and body type, but also sets realistic expectations about the leading indicators that will more accurately reveal your level of wellbeing to help you feel your best. So instead of just checking the number on the scale or the size of your jeans, here are some steps you can take to enjoy a healthy weight that works for you.

Know Your BMI

Body Mass Index is based on your height and weight. It’s used to measure body fat and can help detect risk for certain diseases. But it’s far from perfect. For example, on muscular individuals it can often exaggerate the amount of body fat, while for older individuals (who have less muscle mass), it may understate their true amount of body fat. However, for the majority of people it is one of the best ways to understand the impacts your weight is having on your health. Work with your doctor to assess your target BMI for optimum health.

Forget About Ideals

In the world of weight loss, most experienced professionals know to avoid trying to lose too much too fast. As a rule of thumb, when the benefits of a new supplement or weight loss program seem too good to be true, it is. Losing weight takes time, and the fact is that even small amounts of weight loss can have a big impact. One technique that is used to approach weight loss is the 10% rule—even if you plan on losing more in the future, set your sights on a 10% weight loss, and give yourself plenty of time to achieve it. These slow and steady changes are much more likely to be permanent than the more drastic alternatives available. Once you reach your goal, the next 10% will see much easier.

Baby Steps

It’s important to take it slow not only with the amount of weight you lose in a week or month, but also in the adjustments you make to other parts of your life like diet. While there should be some urgency in eliminating the foods and drinks that are keeping you stuck in an unhealthy weight, trying to eat like a new person overnight is next to impossible. Give yourself time to make the adjustments, but be consistent. Again, these adjustments may be small, but they’re more likely to stick.

Never Too Late

Most people will try several different weight loss programs before finding the one that works. Losing weight is not easy, especially when bad habits have had a long time to develop into everyday parts of our life. But it’s never too late, no matter how many times you’ve tried and failed. Even people well advanced in age can show tremendous improvement with the diet and exercise routine that’s right for them.

It’s important to be happy with the way you look and feel, and there’s nothing wrong with working towards an ideal. But as you think about your weight loss goals, keep in mind your overall health.

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