Should You Weigh Yourself?
How to Use the Scale to Set Goals and Measure Progress (Without Losing Your Mind)
This post represents a huge change in my philosophy over the years. Previously, I actively discouraged women from weighing themselves frequently – I held the belief that the scale promoted a distorted view of the self and was an unnecessary, or even damaging, tool. “Why would you weigh yourself?” I would scoff. “What are you, a science experiment?”
However, my thinking on this topic has shifted significantly. Now, I structure periodic weighing into my clients’ measurement routines on a regular basis. Why the change?
Before I discuss why the scale can be a valuable tool, I want to note the two incredible cultural changes in this generation that have resulted in the overall trend away from the scale, both of which are extremely positive:
(1) Women have started weight training.
If a woman is already at a pretty low or “healthy” weight, it’s likely that she’s going to put on body weight if she gets really serious about strength training. This positive shift in mentality in women’s fitness from being “as small as possible” to being “as strong as possible” has meant that a fit woman now is probably 10-20 pounds heavier than what she previously thought was “ideal,” and BMI has become less relevant as a tool of measurement.
(2) Education about “ideal” body weights and sizes has improved in general, becoming more individualized.
We understand better now that there is no “ideal weight” that is one-size-fits-all, and that individuals can be healthy, happy, fit, and athletic within ranges that are unique to each person (falling into general body type categories). We’ve learned to celebrate greater diversity in body types, and have greatly moved away from glorifying one homogenized, archetypally “feminine” size and shape. While there’s still a lot of work to be done in this domain, the general trend is empowerment, positivity, and individuality.
In the process, the scale has become overall less relevant.
For years, I thought that the scale had the power to de-rail body image. But now I’ve learned that I don’t have to give it that power, for either myself or my clients, and that weight can be a helpful, accurate, and – yes – empowering tool for setting goals and measuring progress, as long as it is utilized in a balanced, relaxed manner.
Maybe you don’t need to weigh yourself all the time, but here is a short (and incomplete) list of times when paying more attention than usual to your weight, diet, and fitness could be a good idea:
- New house/apartment/city/state
- New job
- New relationship
- New routine
- New weight training or cardio plan
- New anything
… Notice a pattern? Anytime there is a significant shift in your lifestyle, whether geographic, temporal, or relational, it’s a good idea to check back in with your fitness stats frequently until you’ve ironed out the wrinkles in your new routines. A change in lifestyle can subtly undermine your fitness goals, and weight that you don’t really want could creep onto your frame. It’s better to check in with yourself proactively and course-correct immediately, rather than realize 10 weeks later that your jeans don’t quite fit anymore.
It isn’t just about aesthetics – a major change in lifestyle is often what leaves my clients looking 10-20 years in the rearview mirror, wishing that they had given themselves more self-care after having kids, or after the surgery in their 30’s, or even after they graduated from college. When lifestyle-related health issues arise in mid-life, it’s easy to have 20/20 vision in hindsight.
My personal experience reflects the importance of awareness and action.
2008 – when I used to hide behind other people in photos
When I went to college, I put on a serious amount of weight – fast. I didn’t monitor my health or what I ate (or any of my lifestyle choices, really), and I weighed myself about every six months when I visited home. Each time I weighed myself, the jumps in weight were tremendous – 130 to the 140’s and 150’s within a short time. When I hit 160 (I am 5’4″ and petite), I stopped weighing myself completely and bought new clothes, and felt even more out of control. I had no sense of self-monitoring or self-regulation, and eventually the wake-up call was seeing pictures of myself that looked 100% unfamiliar. It was like a different person looking back at me from the photos, someone who layered herself with thick scarves and jackets, and contorted to hide behind others in group pictures.
I had to ask myself, “How did I let this happen?”
One factor that I understand better now is that it would have been easy to make a small course-correction after a 5-pound weight gain, but getting 20 pounds down felt completely out of control. Losing 50 pounds took years. My lack of self-monitoring resulted in an almost insurmountable obstacle to ever getting my health back on track. Even now, I am still amazed and humbled that I did it. It was – and is – a big deal.
Now, I am aware that even small shifts in schedule, routine, and circumstances can all play a significant factor in the status of my health, and that unwanted changes can happen fast when I stop paying attention. Self-monitoring, including weighing, is a valuable tool to ensure that routines can be modified before serious negative health consequences occur. It’s easy to steer a ship back on course when it’s only one degree out of line, but making a hard 180-degree turn, while possible, is far more difficult.
How to Use the Scale
Consistent weighing takes the magic and mystery out of body composition. It reminds me (and my clients) of the science of nutrition, energy balance, hormones, and metabolism. I don’t have to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. Instead, I can use specific information to create evidence-driven goals, strategies, and assessments.
Here are five ways that using the scale as a tool of goal-setting and assessment has benefited both myself and my clients:
(1) I use the scale to get an accurate sense of caloric needs for my clients.
Often, when I use height, weight, and lifestyle in tandem to calculate caloric needs, my clients are shocked at how high their calorie goal is. Women who are used to eating 1200 calories a day on restrictive diets don’t realize that they may need upwards of 1800 to maintain an active lifestyle and can still lose weight while using that goal. Using the scale as one (very helpful) dimension of estimating caloric needs is an effective way to prevent under-eating and under-estimation.
(2) Using the scale helps my clients get used to fluctuation and make peace with a range, instead of a set number.
A 3-5 pound swing is pretty average for most women. Usually it’s more like 1-2 pounds, but I like to see it as a 5-pound range. Sometimes I’m 120. Sometimes I’m 122 or even 124. Obviously if those weights occur within days of each other, it’s not actual body mass. It’s important for clients to realize this, that sometimes, it’s food still digesting, and sometimes it’s fluid retention. So if my client’s goal is to lose weight, it’s helpful for them to realize that their weight jumps around a little on a regular basis, so that they don’t get overly attached to one set number.
(3) I use the scale in tandem with other measurements to get an accurate big picture.
My favorite combination is the scale, the tape measure, photos, and either a body fat loss monitor or an online calculator to estimate body fat. These four assessments together give an incredibly accurate picture of someone’s body composition and weight distribution. Plus, progress often happens in fits and starts (and in some parts of the body before others), and can be disjunct. Sometimes a client will lose inches but not lose weight right away, and it’s important for the client to see all types of progress as progress (not just the number on the scale).
(4) I weigh my clients often enough that there is not a “weigh-in” mindset.
One thing that I like about weighing more frequently is that each “weigh-in” is proportionately less fraught with anxiety. Similarly, clients have confided in me that, if they only weighed once per month or even less frequently, they would probably avoid eating or drinking prior to weigh-in in order to get the lowest possible reading (considering that I have seen clients take off their wrist-watches to step on the scale, I believe them). But weighing once a week, which I do with most of my clients, helps to dispel the black-and-white thinking and make the number not a big deal, because what they heck, we’re weighing next week, too. Clients know that the number may wobble around for a few weeks in the same range before moving, because they see the small fluctuations over time, and they learn to trust their routine and not give the scale so much power.
(5) I encourage my clients to utilize well-rounded social support.
For my clients who have a problematic relationship with the scale, working with a compassionate professional helps them overcome anxiety that they have about weight and body image. It’s grounding to work with another person, and I think my clients have better results because I actively participate with them in assessing their progress and setting new goals based on their measurements.
I find that knowing what they weigh helps my clients to take a more proactive role in health management, and to adopt a flexible attitude towards food and a more “curious” attitude towards weight training and body composition.
The main thing to remember is that a tool like weighing, just like tape measuring and body fat calculation, is the road map, not the destination. As long as you are feeling better, performing better, and your clothes are fitting better, it is likely that you are making progress whether or not you choose to weigh yourself.