It was inevitable that the selection of London to host the Olympic Games would bring into focus some of the consequences of the UK’s measurement muddle. Metric Views looks at one aspect, the measurement of body height and weight, measured in metric for athletes, and in imperial for many others following the custom of previous generations.
When asked, we in the UK will usually give our weight in stones and pounds and our height in feet and inches. You may wonder what is wrong with that and why we ought to express our height and weight in metric units. After all, feet and inches are used in the US, and, although stones are now used only in the UK, it is not too difficult to convert them to pounds (so long as you remember how many pounds to a stone – now is that 12 or 14 or 16?)
Equipment at gyms commonly uses kilograms, the NHS works exclusively in metric units and our Body Mass Index is based on metric units. If you ever need emergency medical treatment abroad, it would be useful to know your weight and height in metric units as paramedics may need it. It is also easier to do calculations in metric units.
Familiarity with measurement units comes with usage. Despite the fact that the NHS and the Government work in metric, they feel that it is necessary to provide conversions when communicating with the public, thereby delaying public acceptance.
The average British man weighs about 84 kg and is about 1.75 m (or 175 cm) tall. The average British woman weighs about 70 kg and is about 1.62 m (or 162 cm) tall. The average length of a newborn baby is about 50 cm, and it weighs between 3.0 and 3.6 kg.
The Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated by your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Someone with a BMI below 18.5 is underweight. Someone with a BMI between 25 and 30 is overweight and any BMI above 30 is an indication of obesity.
Here are some facts about people’s weight and height from The Guinness Book of Records . Robert Wadlow is the world’s tallest man in history at 2.72 m. Yao Defen is the world’s tallest woman in history at 2.33 m. Chandra Bahadur Dangi is the world’s shortest man in history at 54.6 cm. Pauline Musters is the world’s shortest woman in history at 58 cm. The heaviest person on record was Jon Minnoch who weighed at least 635 kg. And Wikipedia tells us that Usain Bolt, World and Olympic 100 metre record holder, is 1.95 m tall and weighs 92 kg.
Experience suggests body measurements are among the last of the old measures to be dropped. In a visit to Denmark in the late 1950’s, about sixty years after the metric changeover, I met no one who used old measures for body height and weight, whereas, during recent visits to several Commonwealth countries, I met a few who had not made the change. Perhaps the Olympics in London in 2012 will help the UK to make progress. They may also demonstrate the value of the familiarity that comes from using a single system of measures for all purposes – is Mr Bolt really that much taller than me?