PSA: Your scale is lying to you!
That little machine in your bathroom, that you step on every day, and allow to dictate your mood and your confidence and your motivation and your worth?
It’s only measuring one thing.
Your body’s physical weight.
The sum total of your bones, and your organs, and your blood, and your cells, and all the parasites and bacteria and joints and muscle and fluid and brains and tendons and cartilage and arteries and veins and yes, your body fat.
Crazy, isn’t it, how we make positive changes for our lives and our bodies and we let all of that work, self love, and progress be diluted down into the moment we step on a scale.
For years, I was a slave to my scale and I let it rule my world. I let it dictate my progress, and I’d panic if I saw even the faintest increase.
It led to so much needless obsession and heartache.
I ignored all the progress I’d made and how much healthier, fitter, and stronger I’d become and instead thought the scale was all that mattered.
The day I stopped weighing myself regularly was the day I got my sanity back.
And yes, these days, I do weigh myself again occasionally, but I don’t use it as the only metric of my health and fitness.
If like me you’re on a fitness journey, but don’t want to fall into the trap of obsessing over the scale (or you’re feeling disheartened by a number that’s not budging), try using these methods instead for measuring the progress of your health and fitness journey.
WHY ONLY MEASURING YOUR FITNESS WITH THE SCALES IS INEFFECTIVE
The scale only represents one thing: the overall weight of your body.
It doesn’t detect (at least not accurately) how much of that weight is fat, water, anatomy, and muscle.
Let me explain.
Fat and muscle are two different types of tissue in the body (which is why muscle can never convert to fat, but that’s a whole other issue).
Fat is less dense than muscle, meaning that one pound of fat takes up more space in your body than a pound of muscle.
This is why two people can be the same height and weight and look completely different. One person may have a higher percentage of muscle than fat, while the other may have a higher percentage of fat than muscle.
This is also why BMI shouldn’t be the only indicator of health, but again that’s a story for another day.
Now let’s take this knowledge and apply it to your fitness journey.
When you start eating healthy and exercising, your body’s fat burning process kick starts into gear, and you lose body fat.
Naturally, the number on the scale will start to decrease.
But as you go to the gym more, and start focusing on getting stronger, the number on the scale stops dropping.
In fact, all of a sudden, it starts going back up.
This happens because, with regular exercise, your body is starting to gain lean muscle mass.
It’s at this point people start becoming obsessed with the scale, or start trying to restrict calories, or even give up hope altogether.
But the scale isn’t reflecting your progress at all.
It’s also not reflecting the fact that, even if your weight isn’t changing, your body is – at a cellular level.
The nourishment of good nutrition and exercise is transforming your cells and your organs, making you better able to fight disease, giving you more energy, decreasing your risk of chronic/terminal illness, and increasing your lifespan.
The scale can’t measure that.
It’s also important (for women especially) to understand that your weight is naturally going to fluctuate day to day, sometimes by as much as 20 lb.
Factors like your sodium intake, your carbohydrate intake, alcohol, medications, your bowel habits, and your menstrual cycle can all cause daily weight fluctuations.
But the scale isn’t clever enough to measure that.
It’s simply data.
A single piece of datum with no context.
Most importantly? The scale is NOT and can NEVER be a measure of your worth.
Remember, your weight is just one teensy, tiny, indicator of progress.
A piece of datum.
When you use it as the only indicator of your health and fitness, not only can it lead to negative psychological and physiological consequences, it can mislead you into feeling like your hard work isn’t paying off.
But it is, I promise you. You’re doing amazing.
Now listen, you can still weigh yourself if you want to, or if you find it motivating.
It can be helpful to check in with that data – occasionally (meaning, less than once a month ).
But it should never be the key marker of your progress or success, especially not when there are so many other (arguably more accurate) ways to measure your fitness progress.
Note: The content below is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute medical or other professional advice and is not tailored to suit individual fitness or nutritional needs. These tests may not be suitable for some persons with pre-existing conditions. Please consult with your healthcare professional before commencing this or any other health and fitness activity.
METHOD #1: MEASURE YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS
Top End Sports has an incredible array of home fitness tests you can do to track your fitness progress. This is the resource I use to help track my fitness, and many of the tests I talk about below are sourced there, so make sure to check them out.
To test your aerobic or cardiovascular endurance at home, try the step test.
All you need is a 30 cm step, bench or sturdy box, and this handy timer/metronome video.
- Step on and off the box in an “up, up, down, down” pattern for three minutes to the cadence of the metronome.
- It’s important to maintain your pace throughout the exercise (but of course, listen to your body and stop if you feel unwell or terribly out of breath).
- At the end of 3 minutes, remain standing and check your heart rate immediately.
- Place your first two fingers on the side of your neck, just underneath your jaw, and you’ll find it.
- Count your pulse for one full minute to determine your heart rate.
You can also use a heart rate app on your phone, like Samsung Health, but just make sure you’ve got it teed up ready to go so that you can track your pulse immediately at the 3-minute mark.
See the full cardiovascular endurance test at Top End Sports to check your results.
Write down the number, and re-test again at monthly intervals to measure your progress throughout your fitness program.
METHOD #2: TRACK HOW FAR YOU CAN RUN
After a 5 minute warm-up walk, track how far you can run without needing to stop.
Write down the number, and re-test again in four to six weeks. Alternatively, you can challenge yourself to beat this distance (even by 1%) at each work out.
If you work out at the gym, this will be easy as the treadmill will count the distance for you.
If you work out from home, you can use a handy app like Runkeeper, C25K (my favorite), or get really fancy and use a device like a Fitbit or your smartwatch.
METHOD #3: TRACK YOUR UPPER BODY STRENGTH
You know what I love most about being fit and strong in my upper body? Being able to get all my groceries inside in just one trip.
An effective way to measure your upper body strength is with a push-up test since pushups are such an incredible compound upper body movement.
This is a variation of the same test used in the Army to test the physical fitness of recruits.
To do the test:
- Get into a straight arm plank position, distributing weight evenly through your hands and toes. Keep your stomach tight and your body straight – this is very important.
- Floppy fish pushups don’t count toward your total, and they’re also dangerous.
- Don’t let your back arch or your hips go saggy, keep it all nice and tight.
- Position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, with a lovely straight line from your shoulders to your wrists. Fingers should be splayed out wide to help with weight support.
- As you lower down, keep your elbows tucked in close to your body – splaying them out can increase the risk of injury. Keep your gaze forward, and lower your body in a nice straight line until your arms reach a 90-degree angle or your chest touches the ground.
- Push your body back up into the starting position, and repeat.
Ladies, you also have the option of doing this on your knees. It’s tricky to keep your body in a straight line from this position, but just as important.
Do as many pushups as you possibly can, without resting, until you can’t do any more with perfect form. Make sure to keep count of how many you do!
Interpret your results using this chart, and re-test to track your progress in one month.
METHOD #4: TRACK YOUR LOWER BODY STRENGTH
Squats, squats, squats, squats, squats, squats, everybody!
Because squats are such a great exercise, utilizing many of the muscle groups in your lower body, they’re a perfect way to track your lower body strength.
The squat test is easy: there’s no equipment needed, just you and a sturdy chair.
- Stand in front of the chair with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight, and brace your tummy tight, like you’re expecting a punch.
- Keep your weight firmly in your heels and in the balls of your feet (not your toes), and begin the movement by pushing your hips and bum backward (rather than starting with bent knees). As your hips draw backward toward the chair, bend your knees to lower down.
- Think of the mechanics of sitting in a chair, rather than bending at the knees.
- Keep your knees in line with your toes, your back nice and straight and your gaze forward, and keep squatting back until your bum touches the chair, then squeeze your glutes, drive through your heels to come back up to stand.
Repeat the movement until you can’t do any more squats with proper form, counting how many you do, and use this chart to interpret your score. Re-test your progress again in four to six weeks.
Note: As with all these tests, it’s important to put your safety first. If you have any pre-existing injuries, especially knee injuries, or you’re not sure how to do a squat properly, make sure you talk to your doctor before attempting this test, and consult a qualified fitness professional about form before attempting the exercise.
METHOD #5: TRACK YOUR CORE STRENGTH
Core strength is so key to good health!
A strong core helps protect your body from injury while you’re exercising.
It’s also responsible for good posture and protecting the health of your spine.
The most effective way I’ve found to determine your core strength is with the sit up test, the same test used by the Army to test the abdominal fitness of recruits.
To do it:
- Lie on a sturdy flat surface with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, feet flat on the floor. You can enlist someone to hold your feet throughout the movement.
- Before getting started, make sure your spine is protected. Stretch your arms forward, elbows slightly bent, until your hands touch your knees.
- Keep your neck neutral, rather than looking up or tucking it in. Don’t arch your back and keep your stomach braced in tight, pulling your belly button toward your spine.
- Set a timer for two minutes and on go, squeeze the muscles in your abs to pull your upper body off the ground and forward until your elbows touch your knees.
- Lower down with control and repeat. Keep performing the sit ups at a consistent but controlled pace until the timer runs out.
You can take a breather during the test if you need it, but only from the sitting-up position.
When the timer is up, record the number of sit ups you did and interpret your results using this chart. You can re-test again in four to six weeks to check your progress.
METHOD #6: TRACK YOUR FLEXIBILITY
Flexibility can be overlooked in the fitness world, but it’s just as vital as anything else. It not only makes moving a LOT easier, but it improves your posture and reduces the risk of injury.
It’s easy to test at home – just make sure you’re well warmed up beforehand, or you risk doing yourself a mischief. I recommend performing this fitness test last so that you do it when your muscles are warm and supple.
Again, for this test you’ll need a step – any will do – and a 30 cm ruler.
- Take off your shoes and sit with your legs extending in front of you, toes flexed (pointed up) and feet pressed onto the base of the step.
- Pop the ruler on top of the step so that the edge comes out above the base of your foot. Place one hand on top of the other and slowly reach forward until you can’t continue any further.
- If your legs start to hurt, it’s important to listen to your body and not push beyond that, or you could hurt yourself. Go only as far as your body will allow.
- Hold this position for a few seconds, then measure how far your fingertips were able to reach. If you didn’t reach your toes, measure how far before the base of the feet you were able to reach, which will give you a negative score.
I repeat this test three times – I find the first measurement’s always a bit wonky – and use your best measurement as your official score.
Follow the chart here to interpret your measurement. Re-test again at monthly intervals.
METHOD #7: USE PROGRESS PHOTOS
Before and after photos are a bit controversial, but I personally just think visual snapshots of progress can be the most powerful.
Looking in the mirror every day, it’s tricky to see our body gradually changing.
But when you look back and see how far you’ve come, it’s such great motivation and so empowering.
Take a monthly snapshot of yourself at the front, side, and quarter turn to track your progress. Wear the same outfit in each one, and take photos at the same time of day.
Also, make sure you’re standing in the same place, in the same lighting, and you’re the same distance away from the mirror in each photo.
Resist the urge to suck your tummy in or do crazy poses – snap photos naturally, but consistently.
Visual changes are sometimes the easiest to observe! You’ll also notice things that aren’t body habitus related, like the glow in your skin, the twinkle in your eye, and the shine in your hair.
Remember, these things are good indicators of your increasing health too!
METHOD #8: USE A TAPE MEASURE
I’ll take tracking my measurements over my weight any day of the week.
Knowing your measurements can help you clothes shop with confidence because you’ll be able to choose a size that fits your body best.
Knowing your waist girth can also be important for your health. Increased waist circumference (over 35 inches for women and over 40 inches for men) puts you at a higher risk of developing diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
In terms of tracking your fitness progress, body measurements can also help you see where you’ve slimmed down or bulked up. I recommend starting with your chest, waist, hips, and thighs. Just make sure to be consistent with those measuring points each time.
METHOD #9: KEEP TRACK OF HOW HEAVY YOU LIFT AT THE GYM
Take your handy-dandy notebook to the gym and chart the weight you used for each exercise. Recording this gives us a visual idea of how our strength is progressing and growing.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget just how much you’ve grown.
I remember when I started lifting weights, I could only do a shoulder press with 0.5 kg. I felt so embarrassed going to the gym.
One day, months later, I noticed that a 5 kg weight was too easy. I went to get the 6 kg weight when I paused for a moment and realized how far I’d come.
Seeing how much stronger you’re getting can be a powerful motivator. Keep a record of it to remind yourself how amazing you’re really doing.
METHOD #10: NOTICE HOW YOUR FAVOURITE JEANS FIT
Notice the way your clothing fits you – where it’s fitting tighter, or looser.
For example, you may need to wear a belt around your jeans to hold them up, but your tee shirt arms fit a little tighter because your arm muscles are getting thick.
The way your favorite clothing feels on your body can be so empowering and motivating. It can give you good and realistic perspective about how you’re really doing.
Even if you’re not able to button them up yet, maybe now you’re able to get your jeans all the way up and over your hips.
Maybe it’s the opposite – maybe you’re trying to gain weight. If this is so, your favorite jeans might fill out a little snugger, or you may be able to wear them out with a belt.
Either way, the way your clothes fit now versus the way they fit before is a great way to notice progress, whatever your fitness goals.
METHOD #11: NOTICE HOW YOU FEEL
I’ve been saving the most important progress tracker for last.
Notice how you feel on this new path. Pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day.
Celebrate when you get up the stairs without feeling puffed.
Cheer when you run around the backyard with your kids and feel energized instead of exhausted.
Smile when you wake up in the morning feeling alert and awake.
Maybe you’re not so stiff when you get up out of bed.
Or maybe it doesn’t hurt to pick things up off the floor.
Maybe you sleep better.
Or maybe you poop like clockwork in the morning, your periods are more regular, or you’re getting sick less.
The most wonderful thing about a health and fitness journey is just how glowy, sparkly, energetic, and radiant it can make you feel.
Your body is thriving on the self care you show it daily. Even if you can’t see it yet, your weight isn’t changing, or your progress photos don’t show much difference.
You’re changing on a cellular level. And feeling that shift is inevitable long before the outer results show up.
Focusing on those wonderful feelings and focusing on how joyous it is to be in a truly healthy body is the most empowered way to measure your progress.
Weight loss is just data without context. Just one of the many metrics you can use to measure your fitness progress.
But it’s not always the most accurate or effective way to chart the incredible benefits of good nutrition and regular exercise on your body.
When you redefine your metrics for a healthy and fit body, you’ll care less about that number on the scale.
And believe me – when you start to focus on your progress in other areas, success and confidence become inevitable.
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