The bad news? You’ve been duped.
The good news? It may be time to throw out the scale.
Weight has never been the best indicator of a person’s health, yet it’s the one most of us rely on for feedback as to whether we are ‘fat’ or ‘thin’. But what really is a healthy body? Is there one answer? Is it based on weight? Body Mass Index (BMI)? Body fat percentage? What if you are very tall, or have wide hips?
Perhaps you, like many clients, have started getting serious about exercising and eating better. With a few weeks of daily workouts on the elliptical and some free weights followed by a fat-free, high-protein smoothie – you feel proud and perhaps a little smug. It’s time to show the scale who’s boss.
Only the number that pops back at you has barely budged from your baseline or -gasp- it has moved in the wrong direction! With horror, you probably slid back into your old behaviors and felt that changing your weight was futile. Sadly, you were likely on the path to a healthier lifestyle, but the tool you were using to measure wasn’t the correct one.
Body Mass Index (BMI) can be just as inaccurate because it’s based on height-to-weight ratio and neglects consideration for one’s body composition. Even athletes or body-builders are often are labeled as overweight or even obese on the BMI scale! For a quick example, take a look at Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – a man whose 6’5″ frame and 260lbs would, ridiculously, put him in the ‘obese’ category:
As with measuring weight, many people will notice an unchanged BMI in the early stages of their new workout and healthy eating regimen. This is because we often start changing the ratio of lean mass to fat mass. Lean mass is composed of bone, water, muscle, and tissues while fat mass is precisely that – fat. This is a great step, but this progress is not measured on a typical scale; in fact, the number on the scale may stay the same or increase.
This is why it may also be a great idea to track how your clothes fit. A pound of muscle and a pound of fat obviously weigh the same, but the muscle is way more compact.
Another way to track progress is to evaluate body fat percentage. Here’s a chart provided by the American Council on Exercise with body fat percentages for men and women at different levels of fitness:
So we see there is a minimum, the essential fat, which is necessary for our body to function by protecting our organs, supplying energy, and regulating hormones. There is also an upper range above which may increase risk of health issues including certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. In between these two extremes, however, is a large range of acceptable body fat.
Instead of focusing on overall weight loss via the scale, a better goal is to establish your baseline body fat percentage and work towards a healthier range based on your desired goals. So how do you do this? DEXA scans and hydrostatic weighing are accurate, but fairly inaccessible methods. For at-home methods, you can buy a bioelectrical impedance device (scale or hand-held) or a skin fold caliper.
There are quite a few ways you can track your progress that don’t involve the unreliable bathroom scale. How will you measure your progress?