Whether you just got back into working out after a long hiatus or you’re just switching up your game, everybody has one thing in mind when it comes to fitness: results. Improvement is the name of the game, but along the gradual transition from flabby to fit, it’s not always easy to see how far you’ve come with the naked eye. That’s why we big-brained monkeys prefer quantitative measurements of our progress: something with numbers that change over time. For many of us, that means making regular stops at the scale… for better or worse.
We tend to think weight is a reflection of fitness, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Alexander Cook)
The thing is, your scale isn’t all that good of an indicator of how well you’re doing. While keeping tabs on your weight is never a bad idea, it’s important to remember that your weight will fluctuate quite a bit throughout your weight loss journey. There are a number of variables, for instance, that can affect a person’s level of water retention throughout the week — causing your weight to fluctuate up and down and really taking the wind of your proverbial fitness sails when you’re reveling in every pound lost.
And of course, there’s the long-held truth that muscle mass weighs more than fat, despite taking up considerably less space. If you haven’t worked out in a while, chances are good that you’re not just changing the shape of your body, but also it’s physical makeup (to an extent). As you burn fat and develop muscle, your body simply isn’t composed of the same ratio of materials it was the first time you stepped on the scale–really sucking the value out of a comparison measurement.
Think of the human body as a 200-pound pile of clay sitting on a scale. Someone lowers a curtain so all you can see are the numbers on the scale. Behind that curtain, someone removes thirty pounds of wet clay and replaces it with thirty pounds of marble. From your vantage point on the other side of the curtain, nothing has changed, but in reality, there’s been a dramatic shift in the body’s makeup.
The way 180 pounds looks on you may be different than how it looks on professional body builder and Senior Airman Terrence Ruffin, but to the scale, you’re one in the same.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
The scale isn’t a measurement of body makeup, it’s simply a measurement of weight. As your body makeup changes, the scale may not reflect your hard work… but that doesn’t mean you’re not making progress.
For the sake of your sanity, try to limit trips to the scale to once a week or fewer–just often enough to keep tabs on your weight as one metric of your progress, and most importantly, don’t get down on yourself when the number doesn’t keep shrinking week after week (when weight loss is the goal). Instead, if you really want to get a sense of how far you’ve come, there’s one old gym rat trick that has served me better than any scale: an old, familiar tee shirt.
Pick one of your old-standby tee shirts, the ones you wear when hanging out with friends or lounging around the house. The more used to the shirt you are, the better. Then wear it for a day, wash it, and set it aside for a month. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s really as simple as that.
The most important physical improvement I made in my twenties was losing that stupid necklace.
After a month goes by, put the same shirt on and feel how differently it hangs on your body. That’s progress. Your shoulders may have filled out, your midsection may have shrunk down, and the way you stand may even shift slightly as you gain strength and confidence. The scale may only say you lost five pounds this month, but the way your shirt fits will tell you that you’ve made some significant strides nonetheless.
Now, if you’re a numbers-driven type of person, qualitative measurements might not sound all that appealing to you. Of course, this method isn’t intended to replace body fat measurements (when done properly), performance figures from your workouts, or even that dreaded scale… but at its heart, fitness really is about how you feel. It’s about feeling healthy, feeling capable, and feeling like your hard work is paying off.
You can’t get that from a scale, but you can from that old Voltron tee shirt in your drawer.