One of the most effective ways to make sure that we’re moving towards our health and fitness goals is to track our progress.
For many of us, “progress” includes losing some weight.
What’s the best way to track weight loss, though?
What all do we need to pay attention to as we progress?
There are countless ways to track changes to body composition, some of which are more involved than others.
While some folks might opt for DEXA scans or other advanced testing, this may not be necessary for most of us.
Let’s explore a couple of strategies we can use to make sure that we’re on the right path without too much time or effort.
First, it’s not just “weight” that we want to lose, unless we’re preparing for a weight-based event or competition.
If we’re not happy with how we look, or if we are unhealthily overweight, it’s more than likely because of our body fat levels.
Of course, we all need some body fat (and probably more than many of us think) to be healthy.
However, too much body fat is associated with a variety of diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Body fat is where we’re going to want to see a reduction.
Everything else that makes up our weight – muscles, organs, tendons, bones – is what we call “fat free mass” or “lean body mass”.
That stuff is really freaking good, and we’re going to want to hold onto it.
It’s so good that it’s even becoming a recognized predictor of longevity.
For simplicity, we’ll refer to “lean mass” for the remainder of this post.
When we’re assessing changes to our body composition, weight alone just doesn’t cut it in terms of determining whether we’re losing fat or lean mass.
Now, this doesn’t mean that weight is totally useless as an indicator of health or an indicator of body composition change.
However, there are some things we’ll want to keep in mind as we track how our bodies are changing.
The first, and perhaps most effective, way to make sure we’re collecting useful information is to assess not only our weight, but our size.
Think of your body as a box.
Imagine that you can fill this box with two things – lean mass or fat.
Lean mass is denser than fat, so if you fill your box with lean mass, it will weigh more than if you filled it up with fat, assuming the size of the box doesn’t change.
Likewise, if your box is getting smaller but its weight isn’t changing at all, you can assume that its contents are changing such that it is carrying more lean mass and less fat.
If all you’re doing is looking at how your weight changes without also looking at how your size changes doesn’t tell you much about whether you’re losing or gaining fat or muscle.
One of the simplest ways to assess changes to your size is by measuring your waist circumference every time you measure your weight.
While waist circumference alone can be an effective tool for gauging fat loss, it can also be used with your weight in a variety of equations to estimate body fat percentage.
Whether you want to go to that level of detail is totally up to you.
You might be just fine paying attention to those two numbers without any equation.
Now, the benefit in tracking waist circumference along with weight isn’t solely for the data provided.
This practice might even result in some positive changes to your mindset towards your weight.
If your goal is to lose fat and build lean mass, you might start wanting your weight to be as high as possible when you check it.
For example, if you check your waist circumference and noticed that it’s dropped, you’ll want your weight to have dropped as little as possible, indicating that you lost more fat and less lean mass.
If, on the other hand, you check your waist circumference and it’s stayed the same, you’ll want your weight to have gone up a bit, indicating that you at least built some lean mass and lost some fat.
Finally, if you notice that your waist circumference has increased, then you’ll definitely will want your weight to have gone up, since weight loss in this scenario would indicate that you’re gaining fat and losing lean mass.
In any of these scenarios, it becomes apparent that your weight should play second fiddle behind your waist circumference.
When you focus on inches along with or instead of pounds, you get more useful information and you start breaking the mindset that lighter is better (because it often isn’t).
That being said, those of us who have significant amount of excess fat to lose will likely see our weight decline quite a bit, even if we retain or build lean mass.
The closer we get to our ideal body composition, though, the more important it is that we pay attention to what exactly we’re losing and/or gaining.
For those of us looking to gain healthy weight, tracking waist circumference is pretty much a “must”.
While waist circumference is one of the easiest ways to track changes to our size and shape, it’s not the only way.
You might also consider measuring your neck, shoulders, chest, hips, thigh, calves, and arms.
Just as we store fat from areas other than our waist, we lose it in these other areas also.
Tracking changes to these body parts in addition to our waist helps us realize fat loss that we might have missed otherwise.
Next let’s talk about how frequently we should check our progress.
It’s commonly suggested to weigh ourselves weekly, or even less often, under the justification that our weight fluctuates from day to day and we might let these daily fluctuations cause us emotional or mental distress.
It’s true that our weight fluctuates from day to day, but if we’re experiencing distress whenever we step on the scale, the root problem isn’t the frequency at which we’re stepping on the scale and the solution isn’t to step on the scale less often.
If you see that you weigh 160 lbs. on one Saturday and then 165 lbs. the next Saturday, you have to wait an entire week before knowing whether this is just a fluctuation (i.e. you weigh 160 lbs. again the next Saturday) or if it’s legitimate weight gain (i.e. you weigh the next Saturday).
Not only that, but if you’re one to stress about your weight, you’ll be doing so for the entire week between measurements.
Weighing yourself daily, however, gives you much more data between those two Saturdays to determine in what direction the trend is headed.
In our example of noticing and increase in our weekly weight measurement, what if we just got back on the scale on Sunday and saw that we were still moving towards our goals?
What about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday also?
These are all data points we’re not taking advantage of if we’re only checking our progress once each week.
If we assess daily, we have six more data points to help us see whether we’re seeing legitimate weight change or just normal fluctuation.
Furthermore, if we’re experiencing mental distress based on our weight, checking daily might help us to desensitize ourselves to these fluctuations.
We see that each day our weight might be higher or lower than the preceding day.
We might even see how your weight responds to different meals, drinks, and other circumstances.
The trend over time, however, is what matters.
On that note, you’ll want to keep the circumstances surrounding your progress checks as consistent as possible.
You might find that immediately after waking, before eating or drinking anything, is a reliable way to repeatedly check your progress under the same conditions.
You don’t solve a problem by running from it.
If you’re checking your progress less often because doing so causes you distress, the problem is the distress, not the frequency at which you’re checking your progress.
If you aren’t down with weighing or measuring yourself at all, you might just pay attention to how you look and how your clothes fit.
How we look and feel matters far more than any number on a scale.
There are plenty of indicators of progress completely unrelated to your size and shape that you’ll benefit from assessing regularly.
How do you feel?
How’s your digestion?
How’s your energy?
How’s your mood?
How’s your focus?
How’s your sleep?
How’s your strength?
How’s your stamina?
How’s your mobility?
Even if the scale and the tape measure are moving, you might consider continuing to tinker with your eating habits, training, and lifestyle if one or more of these aspects needs improvement.
Finally, regardless of what indicator(s) you choose to track your progress, don’t let any – any – of them define your worth.
Decide how you feel about yourself and what kind of day it’s going to be before you step on the scale.
Determine your value as a person before you see how your clothes fit.
Establish what kind of day you’re going to have before you look in the mirror.
You can try all the tricks in the book for finding the “best” way to track progress, but the most important indicator of progress is how comfortable and confident you feel in your own skin.
No number on the scale, marker on the tape measure, or size on the tag will create change there.
That’s completely up to you and what’s going on between your ears.
Start with loving yourself as you are – completely separate from your weight, your size, your shape, or any number you’re using to track physical change.
Yes, your body composition matters.
It’s not all that matters, though.
Put in the work to love yourself for no reason other than that you are you.
With all your imperfections.
With all your weaknesses.
With everything that you’d like to change.
Your body is the only one you’ll ever have.
Treat it with the love and respect it deserves.
Your body deserves it.
You deserve it.
You are worthy.
You’ve got this.