Most of us have been there. We’re exercising and watching what we eat, and naturally step on the scale. When the number isn’t what we hoped, it’s easy to get discouraged – or worse, to feel like giving up.
But here’s the thing: Your weight doesn’t tell the whole story and shouldn’t be the sole measure of success.
Pounds aren’t always the best indicator of progress on a weight loss or healthy living journey. There are many reasons why. For one, it’s normal for weight to fluctuate a few pounds due to fluid retention or other factors. High sodium foods, alcohol or the menstrual cycle are common reasons.
Also, if you are exercising and gaining muscle strength, over time you are adding lean muscle mass, and therefore your muscles are denser and will weigh slightly more than before. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, adding muscle mass helps increase your metabolism – which aids in fat burning because your body burns more calories while at rest. These are positive changes in your body.
If your goal is to lose weight, it’s probably going to take longer than you would like, even when you are doing all the right things. Body change takes time and patience. Even when you don’t see a difference on the scale, it doesn’t mean that change isn’t happening.
There’s a psychological aspect to scales as well. Many women I’ve talked to dread going to the doctor or may even put off routine physicals knowing the scale awaits. Certainly for people with a history of disordered eating or exercise, a scale can be triggering.
I was pleasantly surprised at a recent doctor’s visit when I was asked first if it was okay to weigh me. I think it’s awesome that the medical community is starting to become more sensitive to this issue.
The good news is there are other meaningful ways to gauge success than just weight. In fact, you don’t need to weigh yourself at all if you don’t want to. Maybe it’s time to take a holistic view and a fresh approach – and find what works for you.
Here are several ways to measure progress that have nothing to do with pounds. I’m not saying you necessarily need to focus on everything. Pick what resonates with you.
Tracking how you feel can help you realize how your fitness and nutrition efforts are serving you. Consider keeping a wellness journal that you write in daily.
Is your mood, stress level or quality of sleep improving? Are you feeling stronger, more energetic, more flexible or less stiff and sore?
It was this aspect that inspired me to start exercising 15 years ago. I wanted to be less achy, especially in my back and legs. I started walking every morning, first with a small amount and then gradually worked up to more. Exercise helped me feel so much better that I didn’t want to give it up. It changed me.
When you feel good, it benefits every area of your life. That’s powerful, and exercise and nutrition can help you get there.
Are you able to do activities of daily living better than before, like yard work? Getting more steps in each day? Or able to lift more weight or do more reps?
One of my personal training clients, age 61, told me that she picked up a 20 lb. bag of kitty litter at the store and to her surprise it “felt like tissues.” This was something she’d struggled with before starting full body strength exercises six months ago.
That’s the cool thing about fitness. You might not see the change on a day to day basis, but keep up with it and over time you will be amazed at the difference when something that used to feel hard or tiring is now a breeze!
When we say we want to lose weight, really we are hoping to lose body fat. Fitness and health professionals refer to body composition – the amount of fat vs. muscle in your body, expressed in percentages. If weight loss is a goal, remember that body composition is more important than pounds.
There are a variety of low- and high-tech ways to track this. Low-tech includes using body fat calipers (also known as skin fold calipers), though this can be difficult to accurately do on yourself. On the high end and more costly, a DEXA scan provides precise measurements of muscle, fat and bone.
If you have a smart scale that measures body fat, you can easily track body fat percentage at home. Mine also estimates muscle mass and bone mass, among other good-to-know metrics. These scales use a technology called bio-electrical impedance analysis (BIA), and can be found for under $100.
Regardless, I highly recommend tracking your body measurements using a tape measure. It’s common to see changes in measurements more so than pounds. Be sure to measure chest, waist, hips and each thigh. You could also measure around your neck, biceps muscles and calves. Take measurements on a monthly basis so you can see the changes.
I had a personal training client who lost 15 pounds, but also a total of 33 inches! If she had only gone by weight in the beginning, she wouldn’t have realized the true impact of her efforts – especially during times when the scale didn’t budge. Exercise helps shape your body.
At a minimum, pay attention to your waist circumference. It’s an indicator of an individual’s amount of visceral fat, which surrounds internal organs. According to the Mayo Clinic, belly fat raises the risk of dangerous health problems.1
When your body composition adjusts, you may find that your clothes fit differently and this is another sign that your body is changing.
With healthier eating and exercise, over time you may see improvements in your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and more. So these are good things to track.
For example, one health coaching client saw her cholesterol drop 30 points to a normal level – and her husband’s did, too, even though he wasn’t working with me. The healthier meals she’d been preparing at home instead of take-out benefitted them both.
Exercise and nutrition can also have a powerful effect on preventing or improving type 2 diabetes, and benefits your heart health and brain function, among many other things.
When you make exercise about improving your health and well-being, instead of just achieving a certain look or size, it can be a powerful motivator.
I’d say this is the most important progress indicator of all.
If you’ve succeeded in incorporating a healthier habit into your life, such as a daily walk, or less fast food, this IS major progress! Our habits form the foundation of all success.
There are so many important reasons to exercise and eat healthfully, aside from weight loss. Exercise and good nutrition can do wonders for your body, mind and spirit. But since many of us struggle with weight, it’s understandable to want tangible results while you are putting in the work.
It’s good to make a plan and have goals. But in order to stay the course without getting discouraged, be patient, persistent and understand that progress has many facets.
If you’re struggling, check out my post on what to do when you feel like you’re failing at exercise and healthier choices.
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