Updated: Jul 10, 2019
Recently at TEAM we were lucky enough to have our own trainer Liz Whitfield present to us on eating disorders. This led to a very hearty discussion between the entire team about the use of weight (kg) scales as a measure of healthy body composition.
We spoke about the pros and cons of using weight scales. We spoke about when they can be helpful as a metric of change and when they can be harmful. We spoke about the people that we have on our team at TEAM Elwood, what their goals are and how, as coaches, we can best help them measure the positive results they are gaining from improved exercise and nutrition habits.
After this lengthy discussion we agreed that weight is not an accurate way to assess body composition and standing on the scales often does more harm than good in motivating a person towards the right habits, not to mention with how confusing it can be to rationalise a fluctuating reading. As such we will be moving away from using the scales as a main mode of quantifying body composition change at TEAM Elwood.
We understand that many clients currently use their body weight as an indication of their health levels and a motivator to direct habits. Weight has long been used by fitness professionals as a way to quantify the success of their exercise or nutrition prescriptions with clients and in some cases can still be a helpful way to motivate healthy habits, with 'some' being the operative word.
We feel that for the majority of our members at TEAM Elwood (most of whom have a goal to reduce body fat levels) there are more appropriate and more accurate ways to measure body composition or assess the success of exercise and nutrition habits.
Here's why we believe weight is not an accurate indicator of optimal body composition (reduced fat and increased muscle mass):
#1. Weight can fluctuate daily dependant on circumstances aside from nutrition and exercise and this will mess with your head if you weigh yourself too often. Two of the main variables that affect your daily body weight are water retention and stomach/bowel contents - with the former being the biggest reason for daily fluctuations in body weight. As personal trainers it can be heart-breaking to see well-meaning clients weigh themselves in daily, every time they come into the studio or even once weekly. We see members rack their brain to find reason for the 200g increase the scales are showing since they weighed in 3 days ago or clients who feel the need to punish themselves, restrict food habits further or exercise more or harder because the scales have gone up since their weigh-in last week.
Weighing in too often paints an erroneous picture of how your body weight is trending. So how often is just right? We believe the answer to that is different for everyone and finding the perfect time and frequency to weigh yourself is even difficult for one individual because daily body weight is influenced by so many different things.
#2. Muscle weighs more than fat and the scales don't differentiate between the two.
You may have heard this fact before; muscle is heavier than fat. You may have even seen a picture like this one before depicting how a kilogram of muscle takes up much less space than the same weight in fat:
But have you really acknowledged what this means for your own body? In your own clothing? And when you step on the scales? Have you really rationalised how obsolete the weight scales are in assessing your body composition due to this very fact?
Let's say for example, that since you started at TEAM you have gained 2kg of extra muscle and you've lost 2kg of fat. Because muscle is more dense than fat it doesn't just fill up the same space that the fat you lost once occupied, it takes up less space. meaning you are now smaller/narrower/trimmer. You may even have dropped a dress size. But the scales are telling you that nothing has changed! Can you see why the scales can be so damaging to a person's mental state and health journey?
#3. No matter how much one is aware of and logically comprehends point #2; it can be hard to separate emotionally from a number on the scales that didn't move in the direction you had hoped it would.
I have been in the health and fitness industry for 15 years and even today, after all the knowledge and experience I have, I still get annoyed if I step on the scales and see that it's gone up. My first instinct is to figure out where I can plan in an extra run this week to run that number back down, dammit! Then, my logical brain kicks in, the brain that has soaked up the last 15years of knowledge and experience and I know that the number on the scales has no bearing on the current state of my health or level of body fat or level of muscle mass. So why did I even step on the scales in the first place, you ask? Well, the same reason as you I guess; because they are right there in the studio and it's a habit.
If a seasoned health professional such as myself still experiences these irrational thoughts and feelings after weighing myself and becoming unhappy with what I see, then I can only imagine the un-warranted thoughts and feelings that our clients, people who may not be as aware of the biological differences between fat and muscle, are experiencing when they do the same. At TEAM Elwood; we are in the business of helping people feel good, not bad and in our experience the scales more often lead to our people feeling dissappointed, confused or even exasperated than they do good.
In conclusion, we feel the scales are an outdated and inaccurate measure of healthy body composition. There are more accurate and telling ways to quantify whether your current nutrition, exercise and other health habits are having a positive effect on your body shape and levels of fat and muscle mass, including: how you fit and feel in your clothing, measuring body circumference sites in centimetres and measuring skin folds.
We also want to make the point that body composition is not the holy grail of health. We encourage you to focus on and set goals around creating and sustaining healthy daily habits and achieving individually-determined markers of health (eg: sleeping soundly, having energy that lasts the whole day, balancing hormones) rather than setting goals around achieving a certain number on the scales or level of body fat.
Focus on the journey and the result will take care of itself.