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Fitness journeys are much like roller coasters—full of ups and downs, sharp turns, dark tunnels, and loops that seemingly come out of nowhere. You work your way to the top by holding yourself accountable, eating well, and remaining consistent with your workouts, but yet sometimes you end up hurdling downhill because you allow one tiny thing to dictate your mentality: the number on the scale.

Stepping on the scale everyday and allowing those digits to decide your worth is the single-most effective way to sabotage your progress. Seeing a higher or lower weight than expected can derail an entire fitness regimen that is otherwise effective. What we don’t consider is that this is absolutely normal and not usually a direct representation of “fat loss” or “fat gain” at all. Our bodies are made up of so much more (mostly water). Unfortunately, though, when working towards health and fitness goals that revolve around fat loss, it can be very challenging not to correlate the increasing or decreasing number on the scale directly to fat gain or loss. 

Understanding the scale and why the number always seems to fluctuate is important, but perhaps what’s even more important is understanding what the scale doesn’t tell you. The scale does not recognize how hard you’re working. You’re at the gym consistently, walking, running, playing with your children and pets, or playing sports. You’re cooking meals for yourself instead of ordering take-out or visiting the nearest drive thru. Basically, you’re doing everything you can to improve your health and enrich your life. The number on the scale cannot place a value on that. It cannot tell what you’re really made of.

When we are on a journey towards fat loss, it is important to understand that our bodies are going to lose more than just fat during this process as we make adjustments to our lifestyles (exercise regimen, nutrition habits, sleep, stress management, etc.). Through this process we are making changes to several parts of our body composition (body fat, lean mass, and water). The same is true for one who has goals that revolve around gaining weight as well. 

While the number on the scale may move one way or another, it’s difficult to determine why it’s moving. If your general focus is losing weight (or more accurately, losing fat), but you see the number gradually increasing, it’s easy to get discouraged. However—remembering that muscle weighs more than fat—it’s likely that you’re building muscle mass.

Let’s recall back to when we discussed that weight loss can mean more than just losing body fat. When we’re losing weight (the number on the scale dropping), one of the reasons we could be seeing the number on the scale dropping is through the loss of lean body mass inevitably as we work specifically towards fat loss goals. This is a very critical situation as the drop in lean body mass directly impacts your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Your BMR is your metabolism. So, as you lose lean muscle mass, your BMR will decrease (not ideal). This means we are burning less calories while we are resting. Not to worry, though, as with any weight loss, a little lean body mass loss can be expected. 

The bottom line here is that if you are not actively working on building lean muscle mass, regulating your eating habits, as well as having this low metabolism, you are only setting yourself up for future weight regain. 

If your goal is to gain weight (or pack on muscle mass) but the dial is moving in the opposite direction, direct your attention to your body composition. It’s possible that you’re losing weight through loss of muscle mass. You’re probably not feeding your muscles the proper nutrition needed for them to grow. Your body is a mechanism built to move, but it only performs as well as it’s treated.

It cannot tell you how much water is in your body. You are almost entirely made up of water, but the scale doesn’t know that. Your body weight can fluctuate day by day—even multiple times per day—and that’s normal! If you wake up one day, step on the scale, and see a number you don’t “like,” don’t place too much value on it. Sometimes your body holds onto water and eventually will let it go. Think of wrestlers: in order to make their weight class, they depend upon losing water weight for a short period of time. Once they make their weight, they rehydrate, put those pounds back on, and perform. The entire process lasts a few hours, so don’t be surprised if your weight changes from hour to hour too!

It cannot tell how you’re feeling. There are so many positive side effects of physical activity and healthy eating. The scale does not know how much more energy you have now. It cannot tell how much stronger you are now compared to how strong you were before you started your fitness journey. Stepping on the scale won’t tell you if your clothes fit better. And most importantly, it cannot determine your confidence and self-esteem—unless you let it.

Last but not least, it does not decide your worth.

Your scale has no idea how inspiring you are to those around you. Your successes and struggles may serve as motivation for someone who was once too intimidated to try. It’s okay to take a step back and admire the progress you’ve made. Give yourself some credit for all of your hard work! Enjoy the highs and appreciate the lows because through it all, you’re learning more about yourself every day and none of those lessons have come from your scale.

Oftentimes the scale generates more questions than it answers. Identifying the reasons why your scale weight carries so much significance in the view you have of yourself will allow you to come to terms with all of the information the scale fails to provide. That number is not equal to happiness. There is no magic number that will make you feel comfortable in your skin. Instead, turn your focus toward how you’re feeling, the progress you’re making, the healthier lifestyle you’re creating, and the individuals you’re motivating.

Those are the aspects that will continually bring you happiness long after your scale has flashed that meaningless number at you.

So here are three things we can focus on (other than the scale) to be sure that we are changing our body composition and creating overall wellbeing. 

Find a way to track your body composition rather than your weight.

By bringing our attention away from the scale and to all of the changes that are occurring in our body especially regarding our body composition in its’ entirety, we will have more knowledge and data to know if what lifestyle changes we’ve made are creating a positive or negative impact on our overall composition, energy, mood, and self-confidence.

Find a facility near you that offers body composition testing (such as BIA/InBody, DEXA, calipers, or hydrostatic weighing). This will give you a great bang for your buck and allow you to make adjustments to your lifestyle as needed. The goal is always going to be to find the method that will allow you to lose fat while continuing to gain lean body mass through the proper exercise prescription (i.e. strength training), proper nutritional habits, and recovery. 

Implement proper and sustainable eating habits

It is going to be very challenging (if not impossible) to be utilizing an eating plan that is either very satisfying but not aligned with your goals or vice versa.

When it comes to fat loss goals, it is very important to take a long-term and sustainable approach especially when we discuss caloric intake and more importantly caloric deficits. At the end of the day, in order to lose fat we will need to be in a caloric deficit. I am sure you have heard many times that if there are more calories going in than you are expending, then you will be in a place for weight gain, and the other way around (more calories expended versus being taken in) will result in weight loss. So, that said, the approach taken in regards to how much of a caloric deficit you are putting yourself into is extremely important. The more aggressive the approach, the higher the likelihood you have for weight regain. Oftentimes we discuss our fat loss goals, but we don’t put enough emphasis on what the plan is after we reach that goal. Then we are at high risk for regain especially when you factor in a rather aggressive, unsatisfying, and unsustainable nutritional lifestyle. I’d take a stab and say that just about everyone who has a goal revolving around fat loss would like to sustain that long-term. To stay on the safe side, a good goal is to aim for a ½ pound to a pound of fat loss per week until you reach your goal body fat percentage in order to maintain this long-term.

Boost your metabolism with strength training

If you are stuck in the mindset that strength training is meant for bodybuilders and athletes, it’s time to shift into understanding that strength training is absolutely essential for everyone. It is especially important if you have goals that involve fat loss and maintaining a healthy body composition. 

We have already discussed that strength training will increase your metabolism. This happens because as we build more lean body mass, it requires more energy for our bodies to sustain this mass at rest. However, in addition to this, there are a multitude of additional benefits including increased ability to recover from disease, reducing insulin resistance, and the ability to remain mobile as you age.

Trust the process.