Finding Balance with the Scale; Why Weight Isn't Everything
I have struggled with writing about this subject because I feel that this is so incredibly important to discuss, and yet is so deeply personal to so many people, including myself. So, let me start by saying this: I had a very unhealthy relationship with the scale for most of my life, and it wasn’t until I became a fitness professional that I was finally able to break free from its control. This really shouldn’t be too surprising, though. We live in a world in which people are constantly being reminded of their size and weight, where you can’t watch an hour of television without seeing countless adds for Noom, Jenny Craig, the latest version of Weight Watchers, or any of the multitude of other businesses that exist to help people achieve successful weight loss. Now, I’m certainly not knocking any of these companies or any person who uses them, because I know that they really do help a lot of people. I’ve seen friends and family members share their success stories through social media, I’ve witnessed the life-changing benefits of weight loss in terms of both their physical and mental wellbeing, and as a fitness professional, I am well aware of the health risks associated with carrying an excess of body fat. However, as someone who is both an actor and a personal trainer, I am also very aware of the arbitrary assumptions, associations, categorizations, and various other detrimental prejudices associated with weight. People are quick to label each other as “fat” or “skinny.” You see people being “fat shamed” for gaining weight, but on the other hand if someone loses a significant amount of weight, even for health reasons, then they are shamed for that as well. For someone like myself, who has struggled with weight and body issues for years (more on that in a later post), all of this can be overwhelming, and it puts far too much emphasis on the scale as a tool to measure success or failure. And in terms of setting fitness goals, this constant focus on weight can be somewhat problematic.
This is why I always ask people to give me a fitness goal that has nothing to do with the scale, even if weight is the very first thing on their mind. Yes, losing or gaining weight can be a goal, and there are often cases in which a doctor has expressly told a person, “You need to lose weight.” However, the number on the scale should not be the only goal, particularly since that number is just part of a bigger picture and is not always a reliable form of measurement. In the case of the aforementioned doctor’s patient who has been told to lose weight, I’ll ask that person to tell me the reasons why the doctor is prescribing weight loss. That person might list any number of medical reasons at that point, such as high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, damaged cartilage, or any other risk factor associated with weight that would cause a medical professional to make such a recommendation. Once that specific health related answer is given, then we can work together to design a fitness plan that will help address those major health issues rather than the measurement on the scale, such as engaging in 30 minutes a day of moderate, low-impact exercise, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure, restore healthy cholesterol levels, and improve insulin resistance. If the fitness plan is implemented correctly, then healthy weight loss will typically follow. The same is true for a person who desires to put on weight. If there’s no specific goal connected to the weight gain, then what’s to ensure that any weight gained is predominantly heart-healthy muscle?
So, what if you decide that your goal is simply to lose fat instead of losing weight, or to gain muscle instead of gaining weight? Well, both of those goals require the adoption of something that is going to actually build lean muscle, which means that once again, the goal itself has less to do with a number on a scale and more to do with body composition, which requires establishing consistent participation in an activity that is going to allow you to achieve that desired lean muscle mass. The focus then shifts to establishing a fitness routine that focuses on something that you enjoy doing, something that you can commit to because of that enjoyment, and something that provides you with positive reinforcement through actual observable indicators of improvement. Being able to finally run that mile without stopping, do that full pushup, lift heavier weights, or make it through that spin class without taking additional breaks are all better indicators of improvement than a number which may go up, down, or stay the same depending upon factors that have very little to do with your overall progress.
But you’re probably still wondering what’s wrong with just letting a number on the scale be the ultimate goal. Well, the truth of the matter is that a person's weight may fluctuate even when significant progress is being made, which can be disheartening and cause people to lose motivation altogether. I often make a reference the game Portal by saying, “The scale is a lie.” It sort of is. The scale doesn’t take into account the differences in density between fat cells and muscle fibers, and it doesn’t kindly remind you that your muscles are going to temporarily hold onto some extra water after strenuous exertion. We've probably all heard that popular but incorrect saying that “muscle weighs more than fat.” Scientifically, of course, it doesn’t, because a pound is a pound regardless of the substance, just like in the answer to that elementary school brain teaser asking which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks. The brick has a higher density than the feathers, so that pound is going to be contained in a smaller area, whereas the pound of feathers—well, that’s going to take a lot of feathers and a lot of space. The same is true for muscle and fat. Muscle has higher density, which is why people can find themselves losing inches in circumference without losing a single pound. Because a pound of muscle takes up less actual space than a pound of fat, a person might even gain weight while getting leaner and healthier, but the scale doesn’t take into account any of the true progress that is being made.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with desiring a particular aesthetic and working toward it, but the number on the scale is a far less reliable indicator of success than how you feel and what you can do. Remember, your body is a marvelous, beautiful, incredible machine, and it is capable of so many amazing things. This is especially true when you set goals that will allow your body to become the strongest, healthiest, most pain-free version that it can be. Focus on those goals, recognize and celebrate your progress along your journey to achieve them, and you will develop a healthy, loving relationship with your body that will allow you to stay Always in Motion.