What The Scale Actually Says
(Cue the dramatic music)
In light of today’s weigh-in for the 52 week challenge that’s going on, I wanted to share a few thoughts on scales, what they mean and what to do about it.
Weighing yourself can be a major stressor in your life. I actually go back and forth about even having my clients weigh, but I’ve learned that it depends on the person and what they will do with the results. Sharing the whats, whys, and hows behind it can help.
First off, scale weight is an objective measurement tool that’s used to find the sum total of everything physical that makes up the fanstastic person you are. The major components consists of all bones, blood, muscle, tissue, fat, and water. Everything except for bone weight can fluctuate on a day to day basis and we’re doing to lump blood in with water since that’s what the majority of it it.
The key variables are now water, muscle and fat.
Water can fluctuate anywhere 2-10 pounds per day. It can be affected by diet (intake of fluids and carbohydrate intake), exercise, hormones, monthly cycles, and perspiration (sweat and breath). Pretty extensive list huh? Did you get a tough workout in yesterday? Yup you’ll be heavier. Did you eat extra carbohydrates yesterday? Carbs draw in water so yup you’ll be heavier. Have you also been cutting carbs down low so that when you ate them your body super compensated and stored them as energy and pulled in a lot of extra water? You’ll be heavier. The list goes on and on.
The good news? Water will always fluctuate no matter what weight you are. You’ll always be in That +- 2-10 pound window and that’s ok! That may make the scale look worse but you have to keep these principles in mind. Losing 10lbs of fat and kicking major butt only to see your actually storing 9 pounds of water can be heartbreaking if you let it. It can mask great success. That’s why we’ll move to body fat next.
This is usually the main target for most people on their health journey: losing body fat. Our bodies are amazing at storing body fat for the survival of our species, even though we want to store less than it does. In order for this to go down we need a diet and lifestyle that will promote the use of our own body fat stores as energy while not trying to store incoming food as new body fat. (That’s a whole other topic for another post). If you are using bodyfat as energy, it will be burned off as heat and you’ll weigh less. Getting to that stage requires consistent healthy behaviors, a controlled diet, and can be influenced by exercise. Knowing how much bodyfat you’re burning off can only be done through direct testing measures (bioelectrica impedance, bodyfat scales, caliper skin fold testing, and x-ray type scans (among a few others available). Circumferences are a close second (since fat has more volume than muscle, but this isn’t as precise).
Finally we have muscle. Muscle is the most resistant to change, which can be good since muscle (and strength) is one of the greatest predictors of long term health. Muscle can be increased through weight training and through high intensity training, but is difficult to do in a calorie defecit. Muscles can be maintained through weight training, getting enough calories, and consuming sufficient protein. Muscles will be lost due to inactivity and severely restricted diets.
Every time you step on a scale, you will see a number. That’s the sum total of the previously discussed material. The next crucial step is what you do with that data.
What not to do: Freak out. Most get frustrated which leads to a “what the hell” kind of sabatoge type of day. Stress hormones get released and you feel like garbage.
What to do: Be objective. First off, make sure you have a decent scale and one that’s calibrated to actually get reliable and accurate nummbers. Reflect on how well your diet, exercise, and habits went over the last couple of weeks. I know you wanted the scale to move, but should it have? Did you eat carbs yesterday? Been on too low calorie diet? Missed 3 workouts? Be honest with yourself and look for behaviors.
How often should you weigh? This is one of the most debated topics in the industry. Personally I recommend most people do it once a week or once every two weeks. Weighing everyday, as some do, can really only account for water changes (which are the most dramatic).
What’s normal? In a very generalized answer, if your goal is to lose weight, I like to see .5-1 pound weight loss per week over time. If you are heavier it may be more, weigh less it may be less. Remember that every pound you weigh included the daily water balance. Stuck on the same weight for a while, it’s time to try something new.
Lastly, overall weight is not a reflection on who you are as a person. It’s how hard gravity is pulling on you. Use it objectively to make better choices. Does it destroy your day? Stop it and use other objective tools (measurements for example). Think about other subjective measures (how you feel or how your clothes fit).
Any questions or comments please let me know.