The scale is one of the most commonly used methods to measure progress, and yet is probably one of the least reliable.
I strongly believe in choosing measurements that work to your advantage.
There are so many different ways to measure progress. Choose the right ones and they will keep you motivated and excited about your journey. Choose the wrong ones (like the scale) and you are in for an emotional rollercoaster ride.
The weight shown on a scale can be influenced by things like:
- Hormones. Women generally retain water during certain times of their cycle. If you track your weight in conjunction with your cycle you should notice a correlating trend.
- Body fat levels. We tend to put on (and lose) body fat much more slowly than we think. Big fluctuations in weight over very short periods of time are unlikely to be from change in body fat.
- Lean muscle mass. Like body fat, adding or losing muscle is also a slow process. However, if exercising is part of your weight loss routine then you are likely to build up muscle over time. Even if you have lost fat, it is possible for your weight to stay the same or even increase due to muscle gain. Just to clarify, it is a myth that muscle weighs more than fat (1 gram of muscle, or 1 gram of fat, or 1 gram of feathers is still 1 gram), but muscle is denser than fat which means that you can look thinner and feel better but still weigh the same (or more) if you have put on muscle.
- Water retention. The amount of water you retain is influenced by how much salt (sodium) you eat. Generally, more salt = more water, less salt = less water. The amount of sodium (and water) stored can then change depending on when you exercise and what you eat. This does not mean salt is bad though. Yes, too much salt is bad, but too little salt is also bad.
- Glycogen stores. For every gram of carbohydrate that your body stores via glycogen, it will also store three grams of water. Your body the uses that stored glycogen for various important functions (especially physical activity) and your glycogen stores get depleted. The amount of glycogen (and water) stored can then change depending on when you exercise and what you eat.
- Stomach Content. Something as simple as what you have eaten and drunken lately plus when you have last been to the bathroom can impact your weight. Maybe last week you ate a lot of easy-to-digest foods and a lot of fibre, leading to you having relatively little to excrete versus this week when you get more protein-dense foods with less fibre that are still being digested. If you chug a litre of water, that’s an extra kilogram alone that you have just added to your number on the scale.
- Creatine. This is a popular exercise supplement as it’s been extensively studied and proven to be very effective as well as very safe. Creatine can have a positive effect on performance in the gym (along with some cognitive benefits), but it draws water into the muscles when being stored which adds to water retention. Creatine is also found in red meat, most protein powders, and some Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) drinks. The amount of creatine (and water) stored can then change depending on when you exercise, what you eat, and if/what/when you supplement.
- Stress. Cortisol can cause some degree of water retention, and it’s good to keep in mind that both exercise and dieting are a form of stress (in moderation they are a good stress, but too much or in addition to other stressors can become overwhelming).
But… The scale isn’t evil, it’s just a tool:
Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
What he means by this is (in our context), if you only pay attention to the scale then you are going to be trying to use it as a measurement for progress even if it’s not the best tool or measurement to use.
For example, in terms of measuring your body composition:
- Scales measures mass, regardless of what ratio of fat, muscle, water, etc you have.
- Skin calipers measure skin fold thickness which is used to very roughly estimate fat mass.
- Bioelectrical Impedance estimates body composition based on muscle and fatty tissue electrical conduction and resistance.
- Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry Scans use X-ray beams to very accurately determine bone density, lean body mass, and fat mass.
There is a whole range of accuracy among these tools. However, these measurement techniques are only one class of tools.
Let’s look at some others.
10 Measurements that are better than the scale:
- Body fat and lean muscle mass. As described earlier, these two factors can heavily influence the scale. It’s worthwhile getting an accurate measurement of each to help you make sense of the numbers on the scale. P.S. Don’t trust a “special scale” that you stand on to give you these figures – that’s a gimmick. Get it measured professionally.
- Centimetres. Grab a tape measure and measure your chest, biceps, tummy, thighs, hips, waist, neck, and so on. Use this in conjunction with the scale and these other tools to help you keep track of your progress.
- How you look in the mirror. Not to be vain, but why care about the scale if you like what you see in the mirror? Learn to love the skin you’re in and then use the mirror as one of your tools to judge your progress.
- Emotional status. Your mood, mindset, focus, energy, and mental clarity are all extremely important. Don’t sacrifice your mental and emotional stability for a number on the scale. Develop a positive emotional status through how you eat, move, think, and sleep and you will find it so much easier to achieve your goals (including losing fat).
- Physical performance. Strength, endurance, speed, recovery time.
- Bloodwork and medical readings. Get a blood panel done every 6 months or so to check on important things like Glucose, Cholesterol, Fibrinogen, Hemoglobin A1C, DHEA, Homocysteine, C-Reactive Protein, Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, Free Testosterone, and Estradiol. Get your blood pressure tested regularly while you’re at it.
- Skin. Your skin appearance and overall skin health is often a very good indicator of your health status. See here how to fight acne and other skin issues with good nutrition.
- Digestion. Like your skin, your digestive and gut health are another great tool. Fix your gut, fix your health.
- How your clothes feel. When clothes start to fit you better that is a very positive sign of body composition improvement.
- Absence of disease. Take note of how regularly you experience stomach problems, headaches, sinus issues, migraines, colds, flu, joint pain, and so on. With that said, keep in mind that health is the complete physical, mental, and social well-being (NOT just the absence of disease).
- Edit: Consistency. This is a bonus one that I’ve added because in hindsight it’s probably the most important measurement of all. You can’t get the outcome you want without doing essential actions and habits consistently. Measure (on a daily basis if you need to) whether you are being consistent and whether it’s getting easier to be consistent.
You don’t have to measure everything, but you should be measuring more than just the number on the scale. Use these measurements (and any others you can think of) to help you make sense (and peace) with the number on the scale.
Look for the measurements that work in your favour.
Since I lost my initial 30 kilograms, I’ve been the same weight for the past 3 years now… and yet I have gotten MUCH leaner, stronger, faster, and healthier. My skin has improved, I don’t have digestion issues anymore, I love how I look, and I’ve never had so much confidence and energy before.
I still weigh myself regularly, but I couldn’t give the slightest worry or negative thought about what the scale says when I look at the big picture.
Put the hammer down for a while and pick up a better tool for the job.