Most people go into the weight loss process, well, wanting to lose weight. However, if you’re just getting started, the scale may be the worst choice for tracking your progress. In fact, your weight may be the least important thing to keep track of.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the scale is better at helping you maintain your weight than it is at helping you lose it. The reason? There are important changes happening in your body that the scale can’t measure or detect, such as:
- Changing Body Composition: While your weight is important, what’s even more important is how much muscle you have. Muscle takes up less space than fat, making you look slimmer, and it’s more metabolically active. When you exercise, you gain muscle, raise your metabolism and lose fat, but that fat loss won’t always show up on the scale. Where it will show up is in measurements, how your clothes fit and how your body looks. All that can happen even if the scale isn’t moving.
- Changes on the Inside: You may not know (or care) about what’s happening inside your cells when you exercise, but what’s going on in there can actually help you lose weight. Exercise teaches your body how to release more fat-burning molecules. The fitter you are, the more fat you burn and that is something the scale can’t measure.
- More Strength and Endurance: If you exercise regularly, you’ll be able to do more and more each time. You may start out exercising for a few minutes at a time or lifting light weights but, after a few workouts, your body adapts, allowing you to lift heavier and go longer. That strength and endurance mean you’re making progress, but if the scale isn’t moving, you may not pay attention to how fit you’re getting.
Your weight is just one aspect of your progress and, in many cases, it’s not even the most important one. It’s unfortunate but, for most of us, the number on a scale is the determining factor in whether we’ve succeeded or failed. Using your weight as the only measure of your success is a lot like buying a house based solely on square footage. Sure it’s nice to have 3,000 square feet, but what if it’s across from a skunk farm?
Your weight loss is the same way. Having your weight at a certain number might be nice, but the scale can’t tell you how fit you are or how much muscle you have. Your scale isn’t going to cheer when you finish all your workouts for the week.
Relying only on the scale may make workouts feel like a waste of time, even though each one helped you burn calories, get stronger, protect your body from diseases and make you more fit than you were before.
Losing Weight Makes Weight Loss Harder
What most people don’t realize is that losing weight can actually make weight loss even harder. The more you weigh, the more energy your body expends to move that weight around. As you lose weight, your body will naturally expend fewer calories, something we often don’t account for in our calorie intake.
For example, if you’re 5’8″ and weigh 180 lbs, your basal metabolic rate might be around 1545 calories. If you lose 20 pounds, your BMR changes, dropping by 50 to 100 calories.
That may not seem like much, but if you don’t adjust your calories as you lose weight, you’ll end up at a frustrating plateau.
Beat the Plateau
The only thing more frustrating than not losing weight is hitting a weight loss plateau after making steady progress. You’re exercising, you’re watching every single calorie, you’re this close to your goal and then things come to a grinding halt.
Beating a plateau is often more about making small changes to tweak what you’re doing than going overboard with your diet or workout program:
- Change Your Workouts
- Add more cardio – Adding an extra day of cardio, even if it’s a short one, can be just that extra calorie-burn you need to get over the hump.
- Lift heavier weights – Heavy weights help you build muscle and muscle helps you burn fat. Try lifting enough weight that you can only complete 10-12 reps of each exercise.
- Change your strength workouts – If you’ve been doing the same workouts for more than 4-6 weeks, even small changes can make a difference. Try different ways to progress like changing the type of resistance you’re using, trying completely new exercises or splitting your workouts so you can spend more time on each muscle group.
- Vary your intensity – You’ll burn fat more efficiently if you workout at different intensities throughout the week. Try incorporating long, slow workouts alongside high-intensity interval training to hit all your energy systems in different ways.
- Hire a trainer – If you’re confused about what to do, a trainer can revamp your routine and help you do more with your exercise time.
- Add More Activity – If you’ve maxed out on your workout time or you just don’t want to commit to more training, adding more activity is a simple way to burn extra calories without overdoing it with exercise. A daily 20-minute walk can help you burn up to 100 extra calories.
- Make Adjustments Throughout the Process – You don’t want to obsess over calories every time you lose a pound, but it pays to reassess where you are from time to time. When you lose 20 or more pounds, look at your diet and exercise program and find ways to reduce your calories to reflect your new weight.
- Tweak Your Calorie Intake – Even small changes to your diet can add up and help you move past a plateau. Eating a little less than usual or adding more fiber to your diet are just two ways to reduce your calories without feeling like you’re starving.
Weight Loss Calculators Aren’t Always Accurate
- They’re Only Estimates: The formulas used to come up with these calculations are limited, so they can only offer estimates—estimates that could be so far off the mark that they can actually sabotage your weight loss. Some calculations we know aren’t always accurate include:
- BMI – The BMI formula uses weight and height to measure how healthy your weight is, but it doesn’t take into account lean muscle mass, frame size or gender, all things which can skew the numbers in the wrong direction.
- THR – Many THR formulas are based on an old maximum heart rate equation (220 – age=MHR) that usually underestimates how hard you should be working.
- BMR – There are different formulas used for calculating BMR, but some are inaccurate because they don’t take into account activity levels or body composition. If you’re very muscular, the calculator may underestimate how many calories you need. If you’ve got more body fat, you might get a higher number than you really need.
- They Don’t Give You the Whole Truth: It feels really good when the elliptical trainer tells you you’ve burned 500 calories after a 30-minute workout. The problem is, that number is most likely overestimated. It doesn’t take into account your fitness level or how much muscle you have, two factors that can change how many calories you burn. Another problem is, it doesn’t factor in the calories you would’ve burned if you weren’t exercising. You still burn calories even when you’re not exercising, so you should subtract the calories you would’ve burned to get a more accurate number.
Beyond the Numbers
Weight loss calculations can give you a jumping-off point, but you don’t want to be a slave to those numbers. Other options:
- Find Your Own Numbers – Rather than use a BMR calculator, figure out how many calories you’re already eating. Keep a food journal or use an online tracking site to track your calories for a week or two. Once you have an idea of how many calories you’re eating, you can reduce that number to lose weight. For your target heart rate zone, use a calculator to get baseline numbers and then adjust them by matching different heart rates to your perceived exertion.
- Rely on Your Own Experience – We often rely on calculations even if our experience tells us otherwise. Don’t be afraid to adjust things if you’re not getting anywhere. If your heart rate feels too easy, change it until you’re working at a higher intensity. If you’re following a BMR calculation and you’re not seeing results, try reducing that number by 50 to 100 calories to see if that changes things.
The weight loss process is constantly changing and you have to change with it. To be successful, tweak what you’re doing as soon as you realize things aren’t working.
Weight Loss Doesn’t Have to Be Your Primary Goal
For the scale-focused weight loser, success can be a fleeting thing. Sometimes your weight goes down and sometimes it goes up. Sometimes it stays the same. The scale may change because you ate more or because you worked out less or because someone snuck in and recalibrated your scale as a cruel joke. The scale may change because you’re retaining water or you’re dehydrated or because the planets have become misaligned. Whatever the reason, it’s impossible to know what’s really going on and you may feel like a failure.
What you may not realize is that, sometimes, forgetting about your weight can actually help you lose weight. It may sound strange, but one study showed that people focused on health rather than weight ended up changing their behaviors in a way that led to better weight management.
Beyond Weight Loss
What would it be like if you didn’t worry about your weight anymore? What would you do for yourself if your goal was to, say, feel better every day or have more energy? Shifting your goal to something tangible, something you can see, feel and touch on a regular basis may be just what you need to get the results you’re looking for. Some ideas:
- Your Health – Do you need to manage stress a little better or get rid of chronic back pain? Maybe you want to feel more energetic or get more quality sleep every night. When you exercise to feel better, rather than look better, you’re much more likely to stick with it, especially when you can actually feel the progress you’re making.
- Your Performance – Why not focus on what you want to accomplish rather than what your scale is telling you? Maybe you want to be able to walk up the stairs at work without collapsing or maybe you’d like to work in the yard without throwing your back out. Think of things you’d like to do better and set your goals accordingly.
- Your Satisfaction – Don’t you feel good about yourself when you finish a workout or eat the grilled chicken instead of the cheeseburger? Focus on how you feel when you make different choices throughout the day. Doing more of the things that make you feel good makes it easier to keep doing them day after day.