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Your Scale Is Lying To You!


It has been a long slow journey, you're trying to get fit, but half the time when you weigh yourself, it seems like you are getting worse.  This is depressing, sometimes you think something like:

"what the heck, if I can't get fitter I might as well enjoy myself"

At this point your will power fades and you give in to your favorite form of evil food.  Ice cream was always my kryptonite, cookies and cream in particular, though any flavor but coffee would do.  I have been where you are.

The trigger for this breakdown of will-power was the weight shown on your scale.  What if your interpretation of the scale's reading is not only wrong, but the exact opposite of what you think it meant?

Suppose you did everything exactly right: you measure your food carefully to track the calories you eat; you lift weights or do some other form of resistance exercise three or four times a week; you engage in regular aerobic activities (running, bicycling, etc.) and you carefully track the calories burned, possibly using a heart rate monitor wrist watch for maximum accuracy.  Your goal is to drop 1/2 lb of fat each week, but after four weeks, you weigh 1 lb more than when you started!  Sounds like you failed.  But lets take a closer look:

  • Are you physically stronger than when you started four weeks ago?
  • Do your clothes fit tighter or looser than they did?

If you are stronger and your clothes are looser, then you must have both lost fat and gained some muscle during those four weeks.  Suppose you achieved your goal and lost 1/2 lb of fat per week, that would mean you lost 2 lbs of fat, so how can you possibly weigh more?  What if during those four weeks you also gained 3 lbs of muscle?  This is difficult, but possible if you do everything correctly, particularly when you are just starting out.  Every pound of fat represents 3500 calories of stored energy, to lose a pound of fat, you must burn 3500 calories more than you eat.  On the other hand, muscle only contains about 600 calories of stored energy per pound, so you only have to eat 600 more calories than you burn to put on a pound of muscle (assuming you worked out and ate properly to encourage your body to add muscle).  I'm simplifying here, but it is accurate enough for the purposes of this discussion.  The point is that the end result of your four weeks of doing everything right is that you burned 7,000 calories of fat and added 1800 calories of muscle.  The end result is that you burned:

7000 - 1800 = 5200 calories more than you ate

but you weigh one pound more!

The upshot of this is that rather than failing, you achieved your goal with spectacular results, but what the scale reading meant is not what you thought ("your scale lied to you"), you became depressed, and undid part of your great achievement.  The above example is the most frustrating way that things can happen because you did everything exactly right and succeeded, but you thought you failed!  This isn't the only way something like this can happen.

A few weeks back, I caught a cold.  I managed to suppress the symptoms with high doses of assorted vitamins and minerals, and felt surprisingly good otherwise.  I did my usual weightlifting schedule, continuing to make steady progress during this week, but got a tremendous surprise when I did my usual once-a-week Saturday morning weigh-in and body fat check.  My weight was up FIVE LBS in one week, my body fat readings were also up a comparable amount.  I track what I eat and how much I exercise very closely, so at the end of any given week I pretty much know what to expect.  It would be impossible for me to have actually gained five lbs in one week without knowing it was happening.  To put it in perspective, it would have been necessary for me to eat almost twice as much food as I normally do for the whole week in order to gain this much fat.  Of course while I had gained weight, I had not actually gained fat.  A little of the extra weight was muscle from weight lifting, the bulk of it was fluids built up in my body as a result of the cold.  This increased my weight and body fat readings temporarily, however, over the course of two to three weeks it all cleared out and I was back to where my weight and body fat should have been.
The above effect illustrates why special tea and juice diets that claim incredible weight loss are just so much rubbish.  Like my cold, these diets tinker with the fluids in your body, only instead of adding fluids, they flush them out, leaving you dehydrated, but of course weighing less.  Unfortunately, it is no more real than my five-pound weight gain was.  When your body has a chance to return to it's normal state, your weight will return also, because the amount of fat you are carrying around never changed.

We have talked about fat, muscle, and water (fluids), but what about bone?  I was talking with a young woman I have known for many years and she told me that she weighed 140 lbs.  I was frankly astounded since for most women her height this would have realistically meant that she was carrying at least 20 lbs of excess fat, and she definitely did not have excess fat.  Looking at her I would have guessed maybe 115 lbs, though I know from her background that she is far stronger than most women (and probably a lot of men), so the greater muscle mass probably made her look lighter than she was (1 lb of muscle takes up less space than 1 lb of fat), but even that seemed inadequate to explain her weight.  Ultimately, I remembered that she was a dancer and had been from a very early age.  Dancing (particularly of the type she engages in) increases bone density significantly, making the bones not only much stronger (so they don't break under the stress of dancing), but much heavier.

The point of all this is that your weight is ultimately irrelevant.  A female athlete at 140 lbs may be extremely fit with dense bones, lots of muscle and no trace of excess fat, where a female couch-potato who is the same height and weight may be carrying around forty pounds of excess fat.  Your level of fitness and/or how you look is probably what you are really concerned about, so don't set your goals based on weight!  BMI (body mass index) is another popular way of measuring people, but being based on height and weight, it is just as meaningless as your weight.

Body fat is probably the best measure that is reasonably accessible (though it is not without it's limitations as well), because it at least gives you an idea of how much excess fat you are carrying around.  More importantly, measuring body fat won't deceive you the way a scale can.  In the example given above where you gained weight, but actually lost fat, measuring your body fat would have told you that you had improved, whereas the scale made it look like you were doing worse.  Of course it too can be deceiving such as when I was sick, but this is a more unusual and temporary situation and is easily discounted as the readings returned to normal when I got better.

If you want to measure  your progress, it is important to always take any physical measurements under the exact same conditions.  Generally only once a week is best, the variations are too great for daily readings to be useful and they can be discouraging.  Try to always measure on the same day of the week at the same time and with your body in the same state.  When you last ate, used the toilet, exercised, had a drink, etc. all affect how much fluids are in your system, altering your weight and in some cases, body fat measurements as well.

I track weight and body fat in my weekly check.  While weight by itself is not particularly helpful, coupled with body fat percentage, it tells you about how much fat you have to lose or muscle to gain (depending on your goals).  I measure body fat using "Accu-Measure" mechanical calipers.  I find it somewhat difficult to get consistent readings from them, but they are small, light weight and not too expensive, making them a reasonable choice for when I travel.  I have tried the digital electronic version of these calipers as well and find they are more difficult to get consistent results from.  An alternative approach to measuring body fat is using an electronic scale which includes body fat measurement; however, none of the ones I have seen so far do it correctly.  The correct way to measure is with one sensor on the hand and one on the foot (I know the inventor of the technology), so the accuracy of the readings on these scales, which connect the sensors either to both hands or both feet, are a bit questionable.  Of course what matters most is not how accurate the measurements are, but how consistent they are.  In other words you don't need to know exactly how much body fat you have, just how much your body fat changed in the last week.  This is what you need to know as you work to become more fit.  I imagine these scales should be adequate for this purpose.

If you found this article helpful, you may also be interested in:

  • The Calorie Myth - another article I wrote discussing misconceptions about calories.
  • The best information I have ever found on the subject of stripping off excess fat is this book: Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle.  It is the program I used to take off the last 30lbs of excess fat, and I still use it today as I am rebuilding my body.  I previously wrote about this program under "Getting Fit" on my page of Useful Health Information.  Note: if you buy through the link above, I will receive a percentage of the sale, however, I don't recommend products I haven't tried, and I would recommend it even if they didn't pay me.
  • Another article I wrote: Success is Not an Option discusses how you can set yourself up to achieve your goals in anything (not just fitness).



Amen brother!  This was an important article.  If I can add my two cents, I now look to other things for my reinforcement rather than the scale.  In addition to the looser clothes you mentioned; improved mood, more alert brain (big difference here), lower blood pressure (that's a fun number to watch), and needing less sleep (a big surprise).  A note on the sleeping less, at first I questioned how I could afford the time to exercise (over an hour daily, split between morning and evening so it doesn't become a chore).  After noticing that I was sleeping about the same amount of time less each day that I exercised, it started to make sense. You get back what you put into it (really more, if you count all the other benefits, many of them in the area of time). Some days I even recover more time from sleep than I am spending in exercise.  Very worth it.  I am guessing that one has to do enough exercise each day, and do it for enough weeks to notice this side effect. Also, think about all the years one may be adding to the end of their
life (unless they get hit by a car while jogging, of course).   Of course, there's a point of no return on this, not to mention the fact that too much exercise can compromise the immune system.  But once you add in all the other benefits such as the elevated mood and more alert brain, it's a winning proposition.  I feel like I get more done in less time (make fewer mistakes, process information quicker), and I certainly spend a lot less time walking around in a fog!  Plus, I cogitate over things I want to solve while I'm exercising, which makes the time fly. It makes sense all around.  I think people can find the time to exercise if they invest enough time and effort into it. 

Man, you are so wrong about coffee ice cream. Yum!