According to a new survey by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, America’s obesity problem is growing. Yet diet and exercise alone are not combatting the problem.

Erin Link of Health Promotion and Wellness said solely fixating on numbers, like weight and body mass index (BMI), is an approach doomed to fail, as it ignores the growing concept of “overall health.”

Weight is just one way to quantify health. There are many different ways to measure health. It could be blood pressure or how many hours someone sleeps. Obesity just happens to be one number that is readily accessible to doctors and those tracking the nation’s health. Yet numbers on obesity do not tell the whole story. It doesn’t take into account what people eat, family health history, activity level, or their state of mind. It doesn’t tell you if they’re stressed or facing financial problems. So again, weight is just one determinant that gives you a small window into somebody’s health.

Your health is a delicate system; everything is intertwined. When one part of the system isn’t attended to, either it stops working or makes another part have to work even harder.

When Health Promotion and Wellness talks about a person being healthy, we look at seven dimensions of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, and vocational. Some people call this approach holistic health, which just means taking more than one approach and tending to the whole person. By tending to the whole person, you positively influence all aspects of health—including weight.

There are often misconceptions about aspects of wellness. For instance when we say emotional, it’s more than “how are you feeling today?” It’s an ability to express emotion and also self-awareness. Emotional wellness is being able to accept where you are in life right now, getting past the expectations of others, and being okay with who you are.

The same could be said about spirituality. For some people spiritual wellness is church, and that is the image that usually comes to mind. But spiritual wellness goes beyond religion and means understanding your values, and living what is important to you.

When we talk about wellness—or being truly healthy—we need to take a total person approach: mind, body, and spirit. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by that, so people tend to focus on numbers like weight—something they feel they can easily understand and control. But if you just talk weight, you may be missing out on important reasons why total health isn’t being achieved. Weight is also a very sensitive, personal topic that is not always approached with care. Guilt and shame are not ways to motivate anyone to make a lifestyle change.

There are a lot of ways to look at health. But people will always be more than simply numbers.

Link is part of Health Promotion & Wellness at Illinois State University. She can be reached via