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Don’t Use the Scale to Gauge Healthy

scale that reads "fat"No other “health” product has caused so much physical destruction and mental pain than this simple contraption that measures the force of gravity on your body. How much do you weigh? Probably the most irrelevant statistic of your health.

Why is Your Weight So Important?

I’ll have to admit that the topic of “weight” had faded to the back of my mind until lately. It wasn’t until I started hearing about some of my wife’s clients’ concerns (hi ladies!) that I remembered how big of an issue weight is in our society.

Perhaps it’s because of the ease by which you can take a measurement, or maybe it’s a result of our celebrity culture. Whatever the case of weight’s prevalence in our society, you need to start focusing less on weight loss, and more on fat loss.

Weight Fluctuates

Your weight fluctuates by several pounds a day. I drop up to 5 pounds from the time I go to bed to when I wake up in the morning. I can drop 10 pounds in a week just by eliminating carbs from my diet.

This weight means absolutely nothing. It will be put right back on the moment I start drinking water or adding carbs back into my diet. Losing water is not what makes you look better – losing fat does.

Your weight can change for many reasons. It can go down because you lost fat. It can go down because you lost muscle. But the biggest reason is because weight also measures the amount of water mass on your body. No other nutrient can fluctuate as rapidly or drastically as water.

Using the bathroom, sweating, drinking water, changing your carbohydrate intake, increasing your glycogen stores, changes in electrolytes, and for women – changes in your cycle, can all create huge swings in how much water you’re holding, and thus your weight.

Measure Body Composition Instead

If you want a better measurement of your health and fitness level, you need to start paying more attention to body composition. This is simply the ratio of fat to fat-free mass of your body.

The problem? It’s much less convenient, and more time consuming to do these measurements. Most of the time, it takes a second person to help you take this measurement, and for many people, this is a deal breaker.

Getting your body composition measured is a very intimate process. After all, you usually either have to let a stranger pinch your fat (embarrassing), or you need to strip down to have it measured by a machine of some sort.

Luckily, it is possible to do a 3 point skin caliper test yourself, but it’s less accurate than the 7 point. The good news? You don’t have to measure your body fat percentage often, and there are other ways to measure your weight loss progress.

Here is a cheap body fat caliper you can use to measure your body fat with. And in case you’re wondering, there is no calculator where you can enter your height and weight and get your body fat percentage, nor is there any kind of scale that will accurately provide this number either.

Don’t Let the Scale Control You

Do yourself a favor. Take your scale and put it out of site for a week. Does this seem hard to you? If it does, then the scale is controlling you, and you might have an unhealthy obsession with weight.

After a week you can take it out and weigh yourself. However, you’re not weighing yourself because you care about your weight, you’re doing it because you need this number to calculate you total fat mass and lean body mass from your body fat caliper readings. Because really, that’s the only thing a scale is good for – helping to measure different types of mass (fat and fat-free).

Don’t get discouraged if your weight goes up and beyond the arbitrary ceiling you set for yourself. I know how frustrating it can be to see that number go up when you’re working your butt off.

Just know that what you’re really trying to accomplish is not weight loss per se, but improved body composition and health. Once you grasp that concept, you can turn the scale into a motivational tool instead of the dream-breaker you currently see it as.

  • Colleen

    So you are saying that my expensive Weight Watchers Scale cannot tell me my body fat percentage!!?

    • Coach Calorie

      Unfortunately Colleen, that’s what I’m saying. If you enter in your height and sex, it will give you a BMI (body mass index) calculation, but that number has all kinds of problems itself. You might give you a body fat reading, but that is based on their own calculations, and there can be huge discrepancies in accuracy. You have to directly measure body fat to get an accurate body fat percentage measurement.

      All is not lost though. You can still use your scale to measure relative changes. Whether or not the numbers accurately determine body fat percentage doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re continually making positive improvements in the numbers.

  • Vix- Miss Fitness Life

    Electronic body fat scales, even the ones where you hold electrodes in your hands, can be very inaccurate as the level of hydration in your body, not just your body fat influences the result.

    You can increase accuracy by testing at the same time every day and they will probably pick up big changes in body fat but will still not be accurate enough to pick up small changes week to week. (typically when your program is working well you will be dropping .25-.05% of body fat % per week.

    If you have more than 5kg to lose the easiest check to do is your cms- do your tummy, hips thighs and arms. Use a dressmakers tape measure repeat each spot to start with until you get the same result so you know you are accurate.

    When you have more than 5kgs to lose you can expect the scales to come down each week (except for time of the month) where fluid retention can put your scale weight up by up to 2kgs!

    Once you are getting your body fat percentage below 23% then go to callipers as well as cms as your body fat percentage becomes a much better measure of how your body is changing than the scales.

  • Julie

    I’ve been struggling to lose butt fat for quite some time now, however right after I exercised this morning I already starting feeling good about myself. I will use your tips about putting away my scale for the next month, because it can get discouraging looking at it everyday, thanks!!!

  • http://facebook Amanda

    I don’t own a scale. I use the scales that I happen across when I visit family members. I have asked the doctor about my weight and they don’t seem too concerned although according to my BMI it says that I am obese. I am clearly not obese if you were to see me, overweight sure. I have some muscle tone and it is improving each week with the exercise that I have added to my daily routine. I feel more energetic since watching my sugar intake and making better food choices. But what I find odd is that I have lost 8 lbs according to the scale but my clothes have not changed in size. They fit better for sure and I am wearing a bikini this summer without feeling self conscious. My body composition has changed and I don’t need a scale to tell me that. I can see it.

  • Corrie

    Hmm, I’ve often wondered how accurate my Weight Watchers scale’s Body Fat % reading was…. And I’ve never felt BMI was a good measure, either. I’ve always been large-boned and tall and the BMI charts really messed with my head as a teenager. I decided long ago on my own that they weren’t a good measure but had really nothing better to go on.
    I know this article is true because I’ve been going to Weight Watchers for 6 months now & have lost 10 pounds, which I’m happy about, but I also lift weights. So according to the WW charts, I’m still overweight, but I know I don’t look like I am. A problem I’m having right now is that I’m actually tempted to stop lifting weights for a time so I can drop the last 2.5 pounds so that I can be considered a “healthy weight”. But I know this is the wrong way to think (I really want to lose fat, not muscle). It’s messing with my head!! I do, however, need something like WW to keep my eating habits in check, but they ONLY measure weight. I’m finally close to where I want to be, and I’m now going to get some body fat calipers. Great idea! Only I don’t know how to use them……

  • mjones332

    I have to say I use the scale, probably too much, however the one thing it does for me is keeps me responsible for my actions and on track with my diet. It is one thing to see a 5lb water weight swing, but its quite another thing to be oblivious to my weight for a month – because if I am, I will probably gain 15lbs during that period while still trying to do things right, and I don’t think you can gain that much “water weight” :)

    In the end it is about fat and not weight, but until we have portable DEXA scanners or bodpods, I don’t see a realistic and simple method to track bodyfat. Pretty much every “for home use” form of fat measurement out there has its inaccuracies and issues. Heck even using measurements I have never found great, I can never guarantee I am measuring at exactly the same points so if the measurement changes is it me or is it actually a body change? If I have to ask that question its not worth the effort.

    Now, if you go to the same person and have them do caliper measurements, and its the same person each time, perhaps that is going to work but again it requires outside help just like going to a DEXA scanner or bodpod.

    • Coach Calorie

      I am the same way. The difference though between us is that we understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss. If you can keep that in mind when weighing yourself, then the scale can be a useful tool.

      As to the measurements changing from time to time – yes, it is hard to take accurate skin-fold measurements. There is always going to be a margin of error. However, over a period of time, a multi-milimeter decrease in a skin-fold site is hard to explain by a measuring error alone.

      Skin-fold tests are useful for determining body fat percentage, but more importantly, it measures relative change over time.

  • Lisa

    I am not a “skinny” person–I have a muscular, stocky build. So I try not to use the scale as a gauge of my health. I weigh myself once a month to check in but go by how my pants feel, if I feel slow when I run, how much weight I can lift, etc…

  • Sandy

    Stories like this always frustrate me because of course the number doesn’t matter when you are 140lbs and ideally you should be 125…..but it’s a different story if you are 240 and should be 125. When you are trying to lose weight when you are heavier every ounce you see coming off is meaningful and motivating! So I totally understand why I get on that scale daily, but I have to say the frustration of not seeing the number going down hurts even worse…and God forbid if it goes up!

    • Coach Calorie

      That is true, but I still like seeing people get away from the scale and weight in general. Ideally they’d set themselves a body fat goal. Weight means very little.

  • Connie York

    I could not disagree more. I think the scale is a handy, convenient tool to use to help control weight which is an indicator of body composition. I realize it is overkill to weigh every day, but I will never agree that weighing in is a detriment. Sorry. Connie York, a Group Fitness Instructor certified with the American Council on Exercise

    • Coach Calorie

      Weight is a very weak indicator of body composition. Why not just directly measure body composition instead? Weight is misleading.

  • Pat Bates Ashmore

    Tony, I am doing weight watchers and that requires a weekly weigh in. I do admit I am getting disappointing weights. I can feel my body changing and my clothing is getting too big but the number on that dreaded scale makes me crazy. So should I give up on weight watchers and go it alone or just try not to be discouraged by my weighin?

    • Coach Calorie

      Don’t give up, just be aware of what the number means, and if you really want to do it right, also start measuring your body fat.

  • Dani

    Hi Tony,
    I have a weight watchers scale ($40 from Target) that tells me body fat %, total mass of body fat, water %, bone mass density, and BMI.
    I’m a 37 year old female, 5’6″, who weighs 133 lbs. but I have 30 lbs. of body fat. So i’m at 23%BF but strangely enough I looked pretty ripped through all my fat! lol. I love working out and take your advice.
    I find the scale helpful occasionally. Still trying to lose 10 lbs. of fat and keep my toned muscles.

  • kane

    I’m 23 years old and weigh 130. I have been working out for 3 months now and eating better. I am the same weight I was 2 summers ago, but I look so much leaner and smaller be cause it is muscle! I try to stay away from the scale and base it on how I feel and how I look instead of a number.

    • Tony Schober

      Great mindset, Kane!

  • Tony Schober

    Hey Steve, I’ve seen that method before but haven’t tried it myself. I think it would be good to gauge relative progress, which is all that’s really important. But to accurately calculate your body fat, common sense tells me that you need to actually measure it, and circumference doesn’t do that. They are basically using statistic averages to derive their number, which is fine if you fall in the average, but if you don’t, it’s going to be inaccurate. Thanks for the idea.