If you can’t help but step on the scale when you pop out of bed in the morning, consider yourself in good company.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the number on the scale, but most experts agree that daily—or even weekly—weigh-ins are not our friend. Here, three experts explain why, and share healthier, more effective ways to evaluate your well-being, fitness, and fat-loss progress.
Why You Should Step Off The Scale
For many of us, the number on the scale isn’t just a neutral piece of data, it’s everything. “Basically, we’re conditioned to think less is more, so our self-worth gets tied up in our weight,” says certified weight-management specialist Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. We’ve societally identified weighing more as bad and weighing less as good—even though there’s so much more to us than this binary.
“A lot of people have a bad relationship with the scale and become emotional slaves to the number it shows,” agrees certified yoga teacher and dietitian Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N. That number may have the power to create bad habits (or resurrect old ones), encourage obsessive thoughts, and set the emotional tone for the day, she adds.
The scale can even backfire on our overall health and fitness efforts because it de-emphasizes a healthy lifestyle in favor of short-term weight loss, explains Cording. As a result, we may value losing five or 10 pounds over achievements that are truly health-conscious, like cutting back on processed foods.
Plus, the scale doesn’t provide very much information about your health, anyway. “The scale gives you one piece of information, but it’s not the full picture,” says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. Things the scale can’t tell you: how much fat versus muscle you have, your healthy your cardiovascular system is, whether your hormones are functioning properly, how much energy you have throughout the day, or how easily you can charge up a flight of stairs.
We confuse ‘slim’ with ‘healthy,’ but someone who looks slim can still have a lot of visceral fat (fat around your vital organs) and actually be pretty unhealthy, explains Cording. Meanwhile, someone may be discouraged by an upwards-inching scale even though they’re gaining muscle, not fat.
Plus, there are a number of variables that can throw your weight off from day to day. Anything from how hydrated you are to when you last pooped to how much sodium you’ve eaten recently to fluctuating hormone levels (especially during women’s menstrual cycles) can affect the number you see on the scale, says Cording.
Setting Scale-Free Goals
While losing weight can be an appropriate goal for some people, it shouldn’t be your primary focus on the quest to becoming healthier, says Cording. When all of your decisions are focused on shedding pounds, you may be more inclined to make unhealthy choices, like skipping meals, that might lead to a lower number on the scale but don’t support a healthy lifestyle long-term, she explains.
Plus, seeing a lower number on the scale may mean you’ve lost muscle, not fat. Losing muscle can slow your metabolic rate (because muscle burns more calories than fat) and actually cause you to gain fat, explains Wickham. And that’s not good for your waistline or your health.
So instead of focusing on the scale, identify specific long-term goals and set non-scale-related goals you can accomplish every day. “When my clients come to me with the goal of losing weight, I push them to explain why losing weight is the goal,” says Cording. Your specific long-term goal may be that you want to feel confident in a dress at an upcoming event, lose fat around the middle, see more muscle definition, or lower your blood pressure.
A doctor, nutritionist, and/or trainer can help you identify the best steps to take for your goals, and from there you can track those healthy habits, like strength training more often, trying high-intensity interval training workouts, or eating more whole, unprocessed foods from day to day. This way, victory transforms from losing pounds to having a great workout or eating a healthy dinner. Losing weight may be a byproduct of these day-to-day goals, it’s not the goal itself, Cording explains.
How To Track Your Health And Fitness Without The Scale
Now that you’ve upgraded your goals, it’s time to upgrade how you track your progress, too. These expert-backed methods will help you evaluate how much fat you have and understand your health far more than the scale.
1. Track Your Energy Levels
When you adjust your goals to focus more on feeling and looking healthier than hitting a certain weight, chances are you’ll better fuel and move your body, while giving it the rest it needs. “When somebody starts eating better and taking care of their body, they start to really feel different and have more energy,” says Gans. And unlike the fatigue that often comes with slashing calories and working out all the time to lose weight, improved energy levels just motivate you further. Try keeping a daily journal and making not of your energy levels so you can track measurable improvements as you go.
2. See How Your Clothes Fit
“We know when our pants fit and when they are looser, or tighter” says Gans. So if you’re used to checking in with the scale to measure your progress, check in with a pair of ‘honesty pants’ instead, suggest Cording and Gans. ‘Honesty pants’ are a pair of pants (or any other item of clothing) that you wear regularly enough to notice when they are fitting differently.
3. Track Body Fat Percentage
“Body fat percentage is my go-to for people interested in losing weight,” says Wickham. By learning how much of your body weight is fat, you can better ensure that weight you lose comes from fat and not muscle. After all, when you increase how much lean mass you have compared to body fat, you boost your metabolism, says Wickham.
Healthy body fat percentages depend on your age and sex. For men and women in their thirties, body fat percentages of about 14 to 17 percent and 18 to 22 percent, respectively, are considered ‘good.’ That goes up to about 16 to 20 percent and 21 to 25 percent for men and women in their forties.
The most accurate ways of measuring body fat percentage are also the most expensive. If you’re really gung-ho about knowing exactly how much fat you have, you can measure it by being weighed underwater (basically, muscle sinks and fat floats) or using a capsule device that uses air displacement to evaluate your body mass, volume, and density, says Wickham.
But perhaps the easiest, cheapest, and still-very-accurate way to estimate your body fat percentage is with body calipers, he says. You can even do it from home. You use the calipers to pull the fat away from your muscles and measure it, and match those measurements against a chart. (Note: This method sometimes slightly underestimates body fat percentage.)
Estimate your body fat percentage at the start of a new health and fitness program and once a month thereafter, Wickham recommends.
5. Track Overall Strength, Speed, And Flexibility
If fitness becomes a big part of your journey towards your healthiest self, focusing on performance can be a motivating way to measure your progress. If you’ve been strength training to improve your lower-body strength, for example, track your three or 10-rep maximum for deadlifts and squats each month, Wickham suggests. Or if you’ve been running frequently, test your one-mile time. If you’ve been practicing yoga, note when you’re more able to comfortably touch your toes or bend into a tough pose. For every type of training, there is a goal and baseline test that can be created and tested monthly to show progress, Wickham says.
6. Measure Waist Circumference
More than just a tool for fat loss, waist circumference can be a useful measure for evaluating possible health risks that come with being overweight or obese. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than around your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A waist circumference higher than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men is considered a red flag for disease risk.
Like the scale, though, a measuring tape doesn’t account for hormone levels, bloat, or the last time we went to the bathroom, so use this progress-tracking method in addition to one or two of the others listed here to add to your understanding of your health, says Wickham.
While ending a stress-ridden relationship with the scale can help you take a more holistic approach to health, fitness, and wellness, we’re not saying you need to throw your scale straight out the window. “If someone has a healthy relationship with the scale, there’s no reason to rule it out completely” says Gans. Just limit weigh-ins to once a month and do so with a health coach, nutritionist, or doctor, who can help make sure you consider the number objectively.
Plus, there are a few medical conditions and circumstances, such as acute congestive heart failure or pregnancy, in which the scale is a vital tool, says Cording. If people in these special circumstances need to weigh themselves regularly, they will have been given instruction to do so by their doc, she adds.