Learn your levels and what they mean

Posted on March 9, 2010


At your annual physical examination, your doctor might often run some basic lab work – a urine test, a blood sample – as a means for basic health screening. He will almost always also check your vital signs (resting heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, pupils, breath sounds, lung sounds) for anything that may indicate a greater health concern. It’s OK if you do not understand all those complicated numbers and acronyms on your medical records, or the medical jargon exchanged between your doctor and the nurse – most of us don’t.

However, from now until your next appointment, set a new goal for yourself and improve your health literacy by knowing what to look for when your doctor shares your lab results with you. This way, you and your doctor can better communicate about any of your health concerns. By understanding your own health testing results, you will be able to understand your own health, and modify your health regimen to lower your cholesterol, control your blood pressure, and more!


The terms “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” might seem familiar to you. In your body, lipoproteins are particles that carry the cholesterol through your blood.

  • LDL (Low-Density Lipopotein) Cholesterol = “Bad cholesterol”: You want this number to be low. A high level of LDL cholesterol can lead to a buildup of cholesterol along the walls of your arteries, causing narrowing of the blood vessels that feed your heart and brain, also known as atherosclerosis. If untreated, a clot comes along and blocks the artery, and can lead to a heart attack! Ideal: less than 100mg/dL
  • HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol = “Good cholesterol”: You want this number to be high. Medical experts claim that HDL absorbs the bad cholesterol and brings it back to the liver to be passed from the body. By removing cholesterol from the bloodstreams, a high level of HDL will prevent atherosclerosis  and minimize the risk for heart attacks.Ideal: more than 40mg/dL
  • Ideal total cholesterol: less than 200mg/dL

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is essentially the force of the blood flow through your arteries. A measurement of your blood pressure indicates the amount of force pushing against your artery walls when your heart is contracting (systolic, the first number), and when your heart is at rest (diastolic, the second number). Keeping your blood pressure at a normal level will ensure that your arterial walls do not wear out over time, and minimize your risk for other cardiovascular complications.

  • Hypertension: aka high blood pressure. Because people with hypertension often feel very little to no symptoms, it is very important to have your BP checked regularly. A healthy blood pressure will ensure that your arterial walls are not overstretched or injured, and that your heart isn’t overworked. Your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, but if it stays high for a prolonged period of time, you are at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Ideal BP (from the AHA): it should normally be less than 120/80 mm Hg (less than 120 systolic AND less than 80 diastolic) for an adult age 20 or over.
  • Low Blood Pressure: Within limits, the lower your blood pressure reading is, the better. In most people blood pressure isn’t too low until it causes symptoms such as lightheadedness or fainting. Your blood pressure can easily be maintained with lifestyle modifications such as a balanced diet (limit sodium intake to 1500mg), regular exercise, and limit alcohol and tobacco use.

Resting Heart Rate

The best time to find out your resting heart rate is in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, and before you get out of bed. Resting heart rate usually rises with age, and it’s generally lower in physically fit people. The more fit you are, the stronger your heart is, and the less it has to work at rest. Ideal RHR: 60-80bpm

Fasting blood sugar (glucose)

This test (using a blood draw) will quickly measure the glucose level in your body, and is often performed early in the morning without having eating anything in the past 6 hours. Glucose is a major source of energy for most cells of the body, including those in the brain, and comes from the carbohydrates that you eat. An elevated fasting glucose level may indicate pre-diabetes or diabetes. Ideal fasting blood glucose: less than 100mg/dL

    Posted in: Public Health