H. James Harrington
I absolutely agree with the quote above. We cannot improve upon what we cannot measure.
This blog post pertains to health and fitness so when I mention “measure”, what is your first thought? I’ll bet it’s the scale.
The scale is a tool, but the scale does not tell you everything. The scale does not measure every aspect of progress. The scale does not measure improvements in fitness levels; it does not measure how much better you feel; it does not measure how your clothes are fitting looser; it does not measure strength increases or endurance; it does not measure improvements to your cholesterol, triglyceride, and glucose levels; it does not measure body composition improvements. If you are consistently exercising and making better nutritional choices, then rest assured that you will be experiencing all of these improvements regardless of what the scale tells you. The next time you feel discouraged because the scales aren't showing much weight loss despite the fact you've been exercising and eating better, remember you may have gained muscle and lost fat. After all, improved body composition is really the goal. Don’t obsess over weight loss. Focus on body composition: building muscle and losing fat. To change your body composition, you won’t have one goal but two goals: reduce fat mass and increase lean body mass. Shifting your goals from scale weight to body composition improvements frees you from the stress of worrying about scale weight.
I’ll get personal to better illustrate my point. I track my body fat monthly using skin fold calipers. Inbody testing is also a good method and I’ve found that my caliper body fat readings match my Inbody pretty closely. Why should you measure body fat as opposed to just going by the scale? Let me show you why with my own progress notes comparing February of this year to June of this year. I’m not competing, so I no longer go through drastic cuts and gains (I honestly believe those extremes are unhealthy) so my goal now is to maintain my weight within a few pounds, while building lean mass and dropping fat. Being strong, fit and healthy is the goal...we are all striving for that, right? Okay, check these numbers and do the math...first just look at the scale weight comparisons. Then look at the BIG PICTURE:
Scale Weight: 138
Lean Mass: 110.7 lbs
Fat Mass: 27.3 lbs
Scale Weight: 137.2
Lean Mass: 114.9 lbs
Fat Mass: 22.2 lbs
Take home points—> my weight only changed by 0.8 lbs in 4 months BUT my lean muscle mass increased by 4.2 lbs and my fat mass dropped by 5.08 lbs. How’s that for math?! You see, if I were only going by the scale, it would seem as if I’ve made very little to no progress, but clearly I’ve made huge progress in putting on muscle and dropping fat which is my goal.
Put in the work at the gym. Fuel your body well. Be consistent. None of this matters if you aren’t consistently exercising and eating well.
- Measure yourself regularly with the right tools, not JUST THE SCALE. Here’s what I recommend: Keep a log of your numbers—Weigh yourself once a week (same day of the week, first thing in the morning after using the bathroom). Take weekly waist measurements. Why measure? A pound of fat and a pound of muscle may weigh the same, but a pound of fat takes up much more volume than a pound of muscle. The only way to see this progress is with a measuring tape, not the scale. For convenience, do your tape measurements after your weekly weight check. For consistency, measure right above the belly button. Why just the waist? You can measure other areas too, but taking one measurement is easier than taking several and you don’t need someone to help you. If you want to track a couple of areas, track the waist and hips. Keep it simple. Also, while the scale can fluctuate due to water changes, hormonal reasons, bathroom issues and a myriad of other reasons, the waist doesn’t lie. If your waist is expanding along with a jump on the scale, it’s a wake up call. See how you use those tools together? Check bodyfat periodically (maybe every 3-4 months). You don’t have to check it once a month. I only do that because I have calipers. I recommend having the InBody test performed as a baseline and then repeat every 3-4 months. Every few months, do a progress comparison with your data and look at the big picture like I did with my data. It’s so much more motivating than only going by the scale.
- Your composition as a COMPASS: Use your results to make any necessary adjustments to your nutrition and exercise routine. Example: if your Inbody tests reflect that you lost mostly lean mass, then look at your nutrition. Some of the most common reasons for excess muscle breakdown include losing weight too fast, cutting calories too low, not meeting protein needs, and not being active enough.
- Cutting calories: It's a common mistake to drastically reduce calorie intake to accelerate weight loss. The problem is when you suddenly make extreme cuts in calories, the body thinks it's starving, and since muscle requires more energy to maintain, the body begins to quickly break it down. In essence, dropping your calorie intake too low, too quickly puts you on the fast track to muscle loss. An easy way to estimate your minimum calorie requirements is to calculate 10 calories per pound of body weight for women and 11 for men. For example, if you're a female weighing 160 pounds, you need a minimum of 1,600 calories daily. If you're older or have less muscle mass, it may be a bit lower. Dropping your calorie intake below this number may accelerate muscle loss. Note: this formula is only an estimate and may need to be adjusted.
- QUALITY MATTERS: I want to add that while it’s true that calorie intake determines weight loss (caloric deficit) or weight gain (caloric surplus), the QUALITY of your nutrition combined with your exercise routine determines if you lose muscle, gain muscle, lose fat or gain fat. Yes, you can lose weight eating at a 1,200 calorie deficit even if those 1,200 calories are from junk food, BUT, you will likely lose muscle tissue and may even gain fat. Yes, you can make alcohol fit into your calorie allotment, but if you make alcohol a habit, then it’ll reflect in your composition. Alcohol is a huge contributor to visceral fat. Don’t ONLY think about calories, we have to also think about the quality of the foods we’re eating and what we’re drinking. Keep it simple: less processed, more “real” food. Make these your staples: lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats, vegetables and fruits.
- PROTEIN: Make sure you take in an adequate protein amount. Believe it or not -- your protein needs actually increase when you cut back on calories. Therefore, it's crucial to bump up your protein intake to help preserve muscle during calorie restriction. Try boosting your protein intake to at least 0.55 grams per pound of body weight to reduce muscle loss. This means if you weigh 190 pounds, your target protein intake is about 105 grams per day. This recommended amount comes from studies in peer reviewed medical journals.
- Move it or lose it: When you engage in strength training during calorie restriction, it lets your body know that even though you've cut back on calories, your muscles are still needed and working hard. If you fail to work out while dropping pounds, it's as if your body says to itself, "This muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat does, and it's not being used, so I'll use some of it for fuel." Researchers concluded that inactivity during calorie restriction significantly increases muscle breakdown and impairs how well the body uses protein, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007.
The bottom-line: Body composition improvement is the goal and here’s a big take home point: 80% of your body composition is determined by what you eat. We must workout to improve body composition, but we can’t outwork bad dietary choices. Exercise and good nutrition are two crucial keys to your success. You need both to unlock the door.
To measure is to know—if you cannot measure it, then you cannot improve it. Measure your progress with the right tools, not just one tool (the scale). It’s not enough to simply measure. You must use your results as a compass. Are you headed in the right direction? If yes, then keep going. If not, then make the necessary adjustments and redirect yourself. If you need directional help, I’m here to help!