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Are You Too Fat?

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, February, 2007
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jelly beans
I know this is a very sensitive issue for some folks.  And I know there's some irony as I write this I have some jelly beans at my side. In this article, I hope to answer some of the unasked questions that pilots have when it comes to weight.

How Big is the Problem?

Obesity is responsible for 300,000 US deaths annually and that's more than the number of  smoker deaths.  This is clearly the #1 public health problem in the USA.  Obesity adds costs of 300 billion dollars to our health care system.  One third of the US population is obese. 
If you think the problem is only in the USA, then you would be surprised to learn that the World Health Organization has declared obesity as a world wide epidemic. 

Folks believe that as they get older, adding extra pounds is a natural part of aging. Wrong.  Again, I caution you, if this seems insensitive, remember I'm part of the group.  So, here's what happens to the fat folks:
  1. We get osteoarthritis by being fat
  2. We get Type 2 diabetes by being fat and that leads to other problems like diabetic ketoacidosis, diabetic coma, diabetic eye disease, and diabetic kidney disease
  3. We get High Blood Pressure by being fat and that leads to other problems like strokes, impotence, vision problems
  4. We get cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases by being fat. Nearly 70 percent of the diagnosed cases of cardiovascular disease are related to obesity
  5. We get certain types cancers by being fat -- Almost half of breast cancer cases are diagnosed among obese women; an estimated 42 percent of colon cancer cases are diagnosed among obese individuals.
  6. We get Gall Bladder diseases with a BMI over 29
  7. We get Sleep apnea and respiratory problems
  8. We get Dyslipidemia (for example, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides)
Ok, now that I have your attention, how do I measure myself to determine if I'm overweight.  Most medical professionals are using the Body Mass Index (BMI).  Here's how to figure it out:
Formula: weight (lb) / [height (in)]^2 x 703

Calculate BMI by dividing weight in pounds (lbs) by height in inches (in) squared and multiplying by a conversion factor of 703.

Example: Weight = 150 lbs, Height = 5’5” (65")
Calculation: [150 ÷ (65)^2] x 703 = 24.96

Our US Government Centers for Disease Control offers the following table to help you determine what category you fit in.
BMI Weight Status
Below 18.5 Underweight
18.5 – 24.9 Normal
25.0 – 29.9 Overweight
30.0 and Above Obese

Advice to Pilots

If you want to avoid medical problems that will ultimately lead to the revocation of your medical clearance to fly, you clearly need to avoide the Obese category as described above.  If you're looking for a career in aviation, you're on a hard road if you are in the obese category.

Customers pay for the carrying capability of an aircraft.  The lighter the pilot, the more the aircraft can handle.  That leads to automatic discrimination against folks who fit in the overweight and obese categories.  If you're looking to fly helicopters, just forget it if you're obese.  And even if you want to fly airplanes, forget learning how to fly inexpensively. You'll need the larger aircraft to learn in and pleasure fly. 

For some of you, this isn't a pleasant topic.  Trust me, I've been there and understand it completely.  Its just the way things are: put down the jelly beans or forget flying.

Reader Comments

Mon, 5 Mar 2007 15:58:44     Name = Andrew S
Comments = Although I think BMI is a good rule of thumb for most people, I think you should point out that it is pretty inaccurate for tall people or short people (it tries to relate body mass to body surface area, but body surface area is not really a function of the square of height, unless you're a sphere), or muscular people (since mass only doesn't differentiate between fat and muscle mass).
Sunday, January 10, 2010 2:12 PM   Name = Roger M
Comments = One of the things that I have tried that works better than some is to walk the length of the runway for exercise(my home field is uncontrolled and I walk in the grass off to the side).  I get a two-fer: exercise and an aviation fix at the same time.  Anyone else have tips that work for them?

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