Our body is made up of tissues, bones, blood, muscles, organs, and fat. To optimise our long term health, the main measure we should be focusing on reducing is our fat mass and increasing our muscle. Research has consistently shown that this is the best way to prevent many chronic and age-related diseases, while also increasing our longevity and quality of life.
When we stand on the scales, the number that we see measures our total body weight. It has no idea about changes in our body fat or muscle, and it doesn’t tell us where the fat is stored.
There’s a big difference between overall weight loss, which we see on the scales, and fat loss.
Eating less of a bad diet will result in a decrease in body weight, but is this what we should be aiming for? The answer is no. This weight loss will be a combination of fat and muscle, which isn’t ideal. Unfortunately, we can get tricked into thinking this calorie restriction is working because the scales are showing decreasing numbers.
A much healthier way to lose weight is to eat a balanced diet, which includes plenty of protein, and to exercise regularly so we retain and build muscle while burning fat.
It’s important to remember that muscle has a greater density than fat, which means it takes up less volume compared to an equal amount of fat. So even though you might be making positive progress towards your overall health by burning fat and building muscle, you might not see a decrease on the scales.
Remember that eating less of a bad diet doesn’t give you better health outcomes, regardless of weight loss. If you’re eating a healthy diet, but not losing weight, you’ll still be in a much better position in terms of long term health.
Other ways to measure your progress
So, if we're moving away from the scales as a measure of our success, what else can we do to measure our progress?
1. Measure body shape
Taking measurements from certain areas of our body can be a better way to see where we’re burning fat and building muscle. As we mentioned earlier, muscle is denser compared to fat, meaning it takes up less space. This is why we might see changes to our waist or thigh circumference when we’re burning fat and building muscle, despite no changes to the number on the scales.
When taking body measurements, make sure you're using a flexible tape measure and you're wearing fitted (or no) clothing. We’d suggest taking each measurement twice, then working out the average for your final numbers. It can be helpful to stand in front of a mirror to make sure the tape measure is positioned correctly.
The following are a few suggestions of places you could measure:
- Waist - To measure your waist circumference, place two fingers above your belly button and wrap the tape measure around this section of your torso. Breathe out naturally before taking the final measurement.
- Thighs - Find the midpoint between the lower part of your glute and the back of your knee, or alternatively at the widest part of your thigh
- Chest - Stand with your feet together and chest upright and measure the widest part of your bust
- Hips - Stand with your feet together and measure the widest part of your glutes
- Arms - Measure the circumference of your arm at the midpoint between your shoulder and your elbow
We'd recommend taking these measurements every two weeks to help track your progress.
2. Look at how your clothes are fitting
Using clothing size as a marker of progress can be really helpful in measuring changes to our body shape. Noticing that our clothing is feeling looser is a positive indication that we're burning fat and building muscle, regardless of any shift in the numbers on the scales. Good clothing measures include your belt buckle, trouser size, or dress size.
3. Energy and fitness levels
Often making positive changes to our lifestyle such as changing our eating habits, increasing exercise, and improving quality of sleep, can result in a more sustained level of energy throughout the day.
This also closely aligns with an improvement in our fitness levels. For example, perhaps you've got more energy to cook dinner at the end of the day, or you no longer get puffed walking up a flight of stairs. It’s important to take a moment to reflect back on where you were at the start of the programme with a particular exercise or movement, and how it feels to achieve this now. This can help you to recognise the positive improvements you’ve made.
4. Photos of yourself
It can be helpful to look back on old photographs of yourself and see if you notice any changes. People often notice weight loss in their face, which is why photos can be a good reflection of your progress.
You could also consider taking a 'before' photo so you can compare it with your progress down the track.
As we know, the scales can't reflect changes to our body shape, but photos are a good representation of this. By comparing before and after pictures, you’ll be able to see transformations in your muscle definition.
Consider ditching the scales
If you find yourself getting caught up and fixated on the number on the scales, consider taking a break from weighing yourself.
You could try this for a month and see whether you feel more in-tune with your body and how certain lifestyle choices make you feel, rather than relying on machinery to tell you this. Also try to observe whether releasing yourself from the judgement of the scales makes you feel better and less stressed or anxious.
If you notice you feel better not weighing, then consider continuing this in the long term. Remember, our weight isn't a direct reflection of our health and there are other reliable ways to track this instead.