women on scale

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.  Getting up at 5 am to work out, refusing to eat cake at your best friend’s birthday party, having ice water while your co-workers enjoy a drink at happy hour, it all boils down to this.  The scale.  The weekly ritual of stepping on this ruthless little device, as it assigns a number to gravity’s relationship with your body (how much you weigh).

But wait.  Does it really all boil down to this one moment?  Does the number on the scale REALLY determine if you’re succeeding in your goals?   

As with many things, the truth lies somewhere between ABSOLUTELY, and ABSOLUTELY NOT.   To explain this best, I’m going to separate the rest of this article into two sections, the first explaining why the scale is important, and why your weight should be tracked.  The second section will explain why the numbers on the scale isn’t the “be-all-end-all” measurement of your progress.

 

1. Why the scale matters and you should track your weight week to week:

Many of us who work out, do so to lose weight.  When dropping a few pounds is the goal, the focus is almost exclusively on losing body fat (you’d be hard-pressed to find someone interested in losing muscle).  This brings us to the primary reason for using a scale, and checking your bodyweight on a consistent basis:  If the number is going down, you’re succeeding in losing body fat, if it’s not, you’re probably not losing much body fat, if any. 

“But, what if my body weight isn’t going down because I’m losing body fat, and gaining muscle at the same time?”  

While it’s entirely possible to gain muscle AND lose body fat, it’s rare, and short-lived for us mere mortals.  You see, to build muscle takes a lot of nutrients, which almost always means eating more food than you need.   Conversely, losing body fat requires you to eat less, so that your body has to turn to your fat stores as a fuel source.  

“But Jake, my best friend started weight training and lost 4 pants sizes in the first 6 months and the scale BARELY moved!”

Make no mistake, exceptions do exist.  But, the exceptions do not make the rule.  People who are losing significant amounts of fat (getting visibly leaner), while not losing much weight, are almost always in their first 3-9 months of exercise.  When you’re brand new (less than 1 year) to exercise, it’s perfectly possible to do both simultaneously.  Your body is so adaptable and moldable in the first year of training, it will do some amazing things that defy logic!  But, if you continue exercising for years and decades, that seemingly magical process of getting leaner, while gaining muscle mass, will come to a screeching halt (not to say you can’t continue to get stronger or get leaner, but you most likely won’t be doing both at the same time).

So, the math just doesn’t work out to do both at the same time.  9 times out of 10, if the scale isn’t moving down, you’re NOT losing any significant amount of body fat.  Which makes the scale an important tool.  The scale is an objective, unchanging measuring device that can help you keep track of things as you move through your fitness journey.

 

2. Why you don’t need to OBSESS over your weight, and stepping on the scale doesn’t need to give you anxiety:

There’s a lot of reasons you shouldn’t obsess over the scale.  The weekly ritual of checking your weight is important, especially if you have specific fitness goals, but it doesn’t need to rule your world. 

The primary reason not to obsess over your body weight is you simply won’t make progress 365 days a year.  The human body simply doesn’t want to continually make dramatic changes.  In terms of weight loss, this means that every 8-16 weeks, weight loss can simply stop, seemingly for no reason. 

For a variety of complicated (and somewhat uninteresting) reasons, weight loss doesn’t occur in a linear fashion.  For example, if you lose 8lbs in October, don’t expect to lose another 8lbs in November, December, January, and February.  What will most likely happen is you’ll lose 6-8lbs in November, 4lbs in December, 2lbs in January, and 0lbs in February.

Obviously, those numbers aren’t exact, and the slowing of weight loss occurs differently for everyone.  But, it’s important to understand that our bodies don’t like constant dramatic change, and will slow weight loss in an effort to maintain some kind of equilibrium.   Even if you put more effort into your nutrition and workouts, this progress-slowing occurs for everyone, at some point. 

Think of weight loss not as a smooth downward slope, but instead as a set of stairs.  You’ll make measurable progress for a while, then eventually, your body will need to rest.  This “resting” period where you’re not losing weight usually lasts 4-6 weeks.  Then, with effort and proper nutrition, most will start to see progress again. 

 

The Practical Suggestions:
“Now what?  I get that the scale isn’t the end of the world, but that it should play a role in my fitness journey.  What are the best practices when it comes to weighing myself?”

1. Weigh yourself 2 times per week, and average it out.  Weighing yourself once per week is simply not enough data to know whether or not you’re succeeding.  This is because body weight can fluctuate as much as 10lbs over the course of a day due to things like water, external temperatures, and when you eat.  Weighing yourself twice a week and averaging the numbers gives you a more accurate idea of your true weight. 

2. Weigh yourself at the same times, on the same days.  Humans are creatures of habit.  So, build your weigh-ins into your routine, and make sure you get them done as consistently as possible.  Doing so will only make it easier to track your progress.

3. Be cautious of inflated numbers!  That birthday party you went to last night?  Those two extra pieces of cake you had won’t ruin your fitness journey, but they will temporarily increase your body weight.  Having “cheat” meals and going off your nutrition plan is completely normal, and perfectly healthy for most of us, but don’t have a panic attack when you’re a few pounds heavier the next day.  Bloating, water retention, and slow-digestion can all skew your scale results for a day or two.  Rest assured, your weight will return to normal within a few days of getting back on track with your nutrition plan. 

So that’s it!  Use the scale as the tool that it is.  It’s not an authority figure, and your body weight shouldn’t hang over you like a dark cloud.  Use those numbers to encourage your efforts without letting them rule your world.  Thanks for reading along!