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Mind Body and Soul: Pounds vs. Progress – Breaking Free from Scale Tyranny

By Michelle Vessel

You’re locked in an intense battle of the bulge. For the last few days, you’ve been a model dieter, keeping portion sizes in check, steering clear of junk foods, sweets and extra snacks. You’ve hit the gym every day, too, working out hard and pushing yourself to the limit. Now you’re ready to find out whether your efforts have paid off. You excitedly clamber up on the bathroom scale, but to your chagrin, the display indicates that you’ve somehow managed to gain four pounds. Dissolving into frustration, you drown your sorrows in a pint of mocha nut fudge ice cream. Nothing you do seems to matter anyway, so why even bother reining it in, right?

This kind of setback is all too familiar for millions of people fighting the good fight to lose weight. We’ve been conditioned to believe that a shrinking number on the scale is the ultimate validation of our weight loss efforts, and when the scale doesn’t reflect the kind of positive results we’re looking for, the effects can be devastating. Indeed, it’s likely that many a New Year’s resolution or newly minted fitness regimen has been torpedoed by a scale that stubbornly refuses to budge. It doesn’t have to be this way.

An Unreliable Benchmark

Let’s step back and consider the big picture. What are we really trying to accomplish when we say we’re trying to lose weight? In most cases, we’re actually trying to shed excess fat, and if our goal is to look better in our clothes and feel more confident in our own skin, gaining muscle tone should be part of the program, too. Unfortunately, most of us mistakenly believe the scale is the best way to gauge our success or failure. The problem is that scales only provide a one-dimensional snapshot of our total weight in pounds that includes everything: fat, muscle, bones, skin, hair, clothes, shoes, even the half-gallon of iced tea you downed over the course of the day.

What dieters should keep in mind is that human body weight is a constantly moving target. Even when you’re not actively trying to shed pounds, it’s not unusual for your weight to fluctuate up and down between five to seven pounds within a 24-hour period. Here are just a few of the factors that can cause your “scale weight” to change.

  • Water weight. If you’re consuming anywhere close to the 100 or so ounces of water that most health experts say we should drink each day, that’s the equivalent of nearly seven pounds of weight that could be skewing the number on your bathroom scale, according to researcher Michael Boschmann, M.D., who has studied the weight-loss effects of hydration.


  • Hormonal shifts. These chemical compounds regulate the function of organs and systems in the body, but they can also prompt shifts in weight and water retention, especially in women. In fact, according to Robert Berkowitz, M.D., medical director of the University of Pennsylvania Weight and Eating Disorders Program, many women experience an uptick of three to five pounds the week before menstruation due to hormonally induced bloating and water retention.


  • Muscle and fat. When you’re engaging in regular exercise, it’s likely that you are increasing your muscle mass and losing fat at the same time. To a typical bathroom scale, however, there’s no difference between the two, so a gain of five pounds of muscle and a loss of five pounds of fat will show up as no change on the scale, which many frustrated dieters see as a sign that they’ve made no progress whatsoever.

The bottom line is if you’re making an honest effort to slim down and shape up, your scale probably isn’t the best way to gauge your progress.  In fact, it could be hindering your ability to develop a healthier relationship to your body.

Better Benchmarks

So if the typical bathroom scale isn’t the best way to chart your journey to a trimmer physique and better health, how will you be able to tell if you’re stuck, moving forward or losing ground? There are dozens of accurate and motivating methods out there; choose one that resonates with you or develop your own unique approach using a combination of these basic techniques.

Track Your Measurements

Virtually every fitness expert worth his or her salt swears by the tape measure rather than the bathroom scale as the most accurate measure of weight loss progress. Many dieters who think their weight loss efforts are stalled may be shocked to find out that they’re dropping inches like crazy, even when the scale hasn’t budged for weeks or even months at a time. All you need to use this method is a basic tape measure and a notebook or spreadsheet. Most weight-loss gurus recommend checking your stats once a week at the widest point of the neck, upper arm, bust, waist, hips and thighs.

Highlight Healthy Habits, Not the Outcome

Experts say that when it comes to slimming down, the process of establishing healthy habits is often more than half the battle. If you’re just starting out or are stuck because you’re fed up with a seeming lack of progress, try taking the focus off your results for a while and concentrate on cultivating healthy habits. Track your food intake and daily exercise regimen, but hold off on weighing yourself or otherwise charting your progress for a few weeks. If you’re really intent on creating long-term, lifestyle habits that you’ll stick to no matter what your circumstances happen to be at any given time, it’s probably best to dissociate your efforts from a short-term goal like dropping a few pounds.

Use Clothing Sizes to Track Your Progress 

Within just a few weeks of eating healthier food and exercising more often, you’ll probably start to notice that your clothes are fitting you better. Some dieters take this a step further by using a pair of “dream jeans” or a favorite dress or outfit to try on once a week or so as a way of keeping track of weight loss progress. Visiting your favorite boutique to see if you can squeeze into the next smaller size can be a great motivational tool. Be sure you’re using a garment that you actually have a chance of fitting into eventually as your benchmark; trying to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans from the junior’s department may do more harm than good.

Set Externally Focused Goals

Another way to overcome your dependence on the scale is to frame your health journey around a specific fitness goal like running in a 5K race, completing a challenging hike or finishing a killer workout class at your gym without collapsing into a puddle of tears, then set up a rigorous training plan that will get you there. Better yet, consider competing in an athletic event that benefits charity. When you turn your energy outwards and focus on helping others, the frustration you’ve faced in your struggle to slim down will start to fade into the background–where it belongs.  

Weight loss doesn’t have to be a mind-numbing numbers game. Remember that most scales aren’t sophisticated enough to measure the real progress you’re making with all of your hard work and willpower. Instead of letting the number on the scale tell you how you should feel about yourself, define and celebrate success on your own terms, according to metrics and milestones that make sense to you.

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