By Ryan Smith, MD
In 2015, we experienced the rise and fall of what was affectionately termed the “dad bod.” This term emerged to classify a male body type that was described by the University of Clemson blogger who started the craze as “the balance between a beer gut and working out.” This marked just the latest trend for the male physique and was intended to characterize a “softly round” appearance. Representative models were individuals like Seth Rogen, Leonardo DiCaprio and others. This trend became viral behind the propagation that women found this body-type more attractive, with New York Magazine, Time, GQ and others picking up the story.
Underlying the “dad bod,” however, is a dangerous health trend that can happen to many men as they encounter the challenges of middle age, fatherhood, and demanding jobs. The “dad bod” is actually a warning sign of the progression towards many health conditions and marks an opportunity for men to buck the trend.
What we are really referring to is body mass index, or BMI, a measure of body fat based on your weight in relation to your height. BMI is not a perfect measure of health, but it is commonly used to stratify an individual’s health risks. A BMI of 25-29.9, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers overweight, would account for most men classified as having a “dad bod.” A 2008 study found that increased belly fat alone doubles your risk of an early death. As BMI (and waist circumference) rises, so do the risks of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, low testosterone, erectile dysfunction, arthritis, cancer, sleep apnea and reproductive problems, to name a few. Extra fat in the waist area is actually a greater risk for heart disease than fat in other parts of the body such as the hips.
A Northwestern study vouched for the phenomenon. The authors studied how the bodies of over ten thousand men changed as they transitioned to fatherhood and confirmed the “dad bod” does exist. They found that fatherhood changed the health behaviors of men, which were generally not for the better, and in turn BMI rose.
Men, we didn’t need a study to show this; just look around the room and the prevalence of this transition is clear. We’re in good company. The Washington Post reported that in the United States, 27.8 million men would meet these criteria, that is, a staggering 37 percent of men between the ages of 20 and 54.
This craze falls in stark contrast to the life-changing benefits exercise holds for men’s health. These gains don’t come as easy as taking a pill, but can have far-reaching effects, including possibly helping you cast off some of your medications. Exercise can help prevent the onset of depression, heart disease and diabetes. It can also fend off weight gain, improve circulation, testosterone, erectile function and lung capacity. Physical activity can relieve stress by releasing endorphins that wash away tension and result in an improved sense of well-being. We don’t all need to have six-pack abs, but initiating an exercise program could be lifesaving for some. It’s easy to come up with excuses, but exercise is the greatest anti-aging intervention on the planet.
How much physical activity do we need? It varies from person to person. The CDC and others recommend working your way up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (brisk walking, light yard work, playing with children) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (jogging, swimming, competitive sports, jumping rope) or an equivalent combinaton of the two each week. If you’ve gotten too comfortable on your couch, then sometimes finding a trainer who can safely help you work your way back into fitness is a good idea.
There are a lot of resources in our community with ACAC and the YMCA in your back yard. Crozet Running also has occasional workshops for everyone from experienced runners to exercise newbies. The key is to make your goals realistic and have someone to keep you accountable. There really is no debate; the “dad bod” is just a step in the wrong direction for men. So, if you look in the mirror and see one, count it as an opportunity to make a change.
You can calculate your BMI by using the CDC website, www.cdc.gov and using their BMI calculator.