Thing-a-day 21: Maybe it’s time to let the scales fall away

If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” That’s the reality when we want to do anything important – whether it’s reaching an eating or exercise goal, writing substantively in our journal, or tracking our progress in a long, multistep project. The weight scale is the simplest, cheapest, most accessible method for tracking whether someone is the right size or on the right track, but it’s a blunt instrument (and might not match your real goals, anyway). It’s important to know what it does well, and what it can’t do at all.

How many pounds (or kilograms) you weigh is pretty arbitrary. We all grew up with ideas about ideal weights for our heights, and some of us have seen the ranges (for example, as used by insurance companies) change over the years. A pound of muscle and a pound of fat both weigh a pound, but they look really different, so two people with the same height and weight might have very, very different bodies – especially when you factor in skeletal size and the genetic tendency to build muscle.


5 lb of fat weighs the same as 5 lb of muscle, but it takes up way more space!

When people say “I want to lose weight,” they almost always mean they want to lose fat. If your nutrition and hydration are good, and you’re exercising regularly, tracking your weight can work well to help you measure your progress, but those are really big “if”s. Many people recommend, “throw away the scale,” and suggest other methods to track progress as a way to help people break the cycle of extreme dieting, followed by exhaustion, rebound weight gain, and future, even unhappier attempts at extreme dieting. But you can make the scale work for you instead of against you by keeping in mind what it does well, and how to get the best results from it. And one thing it does well is make you pay attention.

There are lots of factors that affect your scale weight:

  • Are you drinking enough water? If you get the recommended 8 glasses a day, that’s 4 lb right there, so if you’ve recently started improving your water intake, be prepared that the scale will show that. This is also the main reason you shouldn’t get excited if you “lose 2 lb overnight.” You probably just need to replenish your water.
  • Have you peed or had a bowel movement recently? These can easily make a pound of difference each. Or more!
  • Have you had a meal recently? You’re carrying that food around in one form or another until it’s all either used or eliminated, so keep that in mind if you recently had a particularly large meal.
  • Stress and lack of sleep can both lead to eating (especially comfort foods, which can be harder to have in small portions), and may have other effects that cause weight to fluctuate.
  • Many factors can lead to retaining water: a particularly salty meal, the changes in air pressure of a jet flight, or a menstrual period. A particularly carb-heavy meal can hold extra water, too – that’s part of the reason it’s been recommended for marathon runners, who can put on several pounds from a pre-race “carb load.”

Many factors cause fluctuations in your weight over the course of a day or two, and others cause major changes. One of those major changes is losing body fat. The other is gaining muscle. If you’ve embarked on a new exercise program, it shouldn’t just be treadmill or elliptical time. It should also have a full-body resistance component. That might be a circuit of machines in the gym that each work specific muscle groups. It might be choosing swimming, rowing, or kettlebell routines, to combine resistance work with cardio. It might be dumbbell or barbell work, particularly in large movements that help you develop balance and coordination as well as strength. That resistance work will add muscle, and that will hopefully – yes, hopefully! – add weight. This is where the tape measure comes in handy – so you can see how much less space that new weight is taking up. As a friend of mine says, “You’re not disappearing – you’re more concentrated!”

If you use a scale to track your weight, keep the conditions as consistent as possible.

  • Weigh yourself at the same time of day, every time. First thing after waking, after you pee, is convenient for most people.
  • Use your scale in the exact same spot, every time. (Try it – subtle differences in the floor can cause a scale to give slightly different readings in different places.)
  • Wear the same thing (or nothing!) every time.
  • You may want to weigh yourself after bowel movements. (If you’re still in good touch with your inner 12 year old, you may wish to weigh yourself before AND after.)
  • Consider weighing yourself only once a week. It gives you more opportunities to work around bowel “transit time,” and often a week is long enough to show a trend with less bouncing up and down.

Another option is to attack the tyranny of the scale head on by taking so many measurements that you can see the connection with your daily habits. This works for people who really like lots of information, but if your stomach churned just reading that sentence, that’s reason enough to not even try it. If you have a scale in the bathroom that is your enemy, though, maybe try weighing yourself every few minutes for a half hour, and see if you get the same result every time. If not, you really should throw that scale out! And don’t feel compelled to buy a new one – there’s other ways to see progress.

What about bodyfat testing scales? The technology used in home scales to estimate bodyfat percentage is called bioelectrical impedance analysis, and it has a wide margin of error. Home scales only really send current through the lower body, the condition of your skin (temperature, moistness, cleanliness) can affect the result, and so can your hydration status. So bodyfat testing scales have all the same problems as scale weight in general, and more. However, they can be good enough for trending if you’re careful about the conditions when you use them (for example, upon waking, after peeing, after washing your skin and wiping down the scale) – just take the strict accuracy of the number result with a grain of salt (or skip the actual salt – no need to invite water retention).

Did you skip all of that because you hate the scale? Are you really working your butt off (literally) just for a number? Most of us have other, more meaningful goals when we make healthy changes in our lives. It can sometimes be hard to focus on them, because they aren’t as convenient as a number on a little screen, but they will probably make the biggest difference in whether you feel a sense of success.

Here are some examples of non-scale measures – and successes:

  • Measurements: Take all the measurements a tailor would take, and repeat them every couple of weeks or so.
  • “Sentinel” clothing: Choose an item (or a couple of items) whose fit is snug, and try it on every week or so.
  • Change in habit: Realizing you walked right past the donuts in the office for the first time.
  • Change in mood: Little things at work bugging you less, for example, or realizing you aren’t feeling wiped out after lunch anymore.
  • Change in ability: The same settings on the treadmill feel easier, or you kept up with your full-of-beans kids for longer than before.
  • Change in appetite: Finding you reach for more nutritious food first because you want to, not because you’ve had to convince yourself to.
  • Change in focus: Getting more excited about a new thing you can do than what the scale or tape measure says.
  • Specific performance goals: Choosing a goal number of steps per day, and hitting goal – then hitting goal every day for a week, or 6 days a week for a month. Or maybe setting bigger goals.
  • Health measures: A lower resting heart rate, or less of a jump when you exercise; lower or more stable blood sugar or blood pressure; better test results at your annual physical.
  • Branching out: Finding you’re ready to try a new thing – a class, a new form of exercise, or maybe a group activity that you never wanted to do before.
  • Growing confidence in social settings: Actually looking forward to that big party – or even a 10- or 20-year reunion.
  • Other people notice! Coworkers or friends tell you you’re looking great, or ask you your secrets.

I once read in a women’s magazine, gosh, more than 20 years ago, that everyone should try this simple test: notice your immediate reaction when you catch sight of your reflection in a mirror or a window. Did you scowl? Jerk your eyes away? Instantly focus on that thing you hate? Or did you smile?

Non-scale victories are about the things that put a smile on your face. Sometimes we think we should be making more progress than we are, real life intervenes and just messes up our schedule for three days in a row, or we get invited to dinner and decide to just plain enjoy it. That’s life, and it’s fine – if we’re making good changes most of the time, we’ll keep moving in the right direction. And that means more smiles.

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