Scales, a weighty problem (or, “Please stop hurting yourself with numbers”)

IMG_4567It’s Sunday morning. You went out last night with your friends and had a great evening. There was steak or a burger. There was a glass of nice wine or a beer. You had some potatoes or rice or fries and a great salad with spinach, goat cheese, and bacon. It was a delicious meal, larger than you usually eat, but totally enjoyable and after a stressful week of work and training, you needed both the food and the company. The group of you sat around and laughed into the night and enjoyed each others’ company. You wheel your legs out of bed, amble into the bathroom, and upon emerging, step on the scale, almost out of habit, thinking about how you went to the gym four times this week, ran a few times, ate pretty well, and, for the most part, resisted sweets, but ate lots of veggies. It’ll be nice to see your work pay off in a loss of a couple of pounds…….

Except you’re up two and are now freaking out. Your partner is still half-asleep and you’re poking them and asking them if you look fat (totally unfair, btw). You message your friends or coach in a panic. You post selfies on the internet saying how fat you are, circuitously digging for comments to affirm that you look lovely (which you do, regardless of your weight). Then you go and run three kilometres more than you had originally planned in a desperate attempt to undo in one motion something that has absolutely nothing to do with your fitness level and cannot be changed by an extra 15 minutes of cardio, especially cardio done in self-flagellation. After you get back from running, you don’t eat more than 1000 calories for the entire day.

Meanwhile your poor body has no idea why you’re doing this to it when all it did was have a nice (and much-needed) evening with friends after what was frankly a very successful week.

I don’t think there’s a fitness tool that is as misused as the scale. BOSU balls may be a close second, but scales have a huge head-start and the gap isn’t closing much between these items that people stand on for the wrong reasons.

When you step on a scale, everything that you have done or experienced recently hops on there with you, including any combination of the following:

  • that salty meal you ate last night and the water it holds on to
  • the fact that you haven’t had enough water in the past few days and are therefore holding on to all the H20 your body can grab
  • hormonal fluctuations in water retention
  • high carb diet that results in water retention and/or digestive issues
  • the massive meal that you ate yesterday, all healthy foods, that has yet to be completely digested
  • weeks of eating high-carb (& often high-fat of poorer fat sources) without any activity and the resultant insulin resistance that goes with this
  • digestive issues stemming from food intolerances
  • digestive issues stemming from insufficient fibre
  • digestive issues or inflammation stemming from illness
  • cellular inflammation resulting in water retention due to injury
  • cellular inflammation and water retention due to heavy training (the microtears that make you stronger use inflammation to heal)
  • eating more than your energy balance requires for maintenance
  • eating less than your body needs (which perversely doesn’t always cause you to weigh less)
  • any supplements like creatine that encourage water retention
  • lack of sleep – yes, this affects your digestion, nutrient absorption and weight
  • stress – affects cortisol levels and also weight
  • bizarre diets or eating plans you’ve tried lately – liquid diets, cleanses, etc. – starting them and stopping them skews results HUGELY.

There are others, of course. But that’s a few. So along with all those factors, if you are unable to view the information dispassionately and assess it clinically, on that scale with you can be:

  • guilt
  • self-recrimination
  • judgement
  • remorse

For a one-foot-square object, that’s a lot to carry. An awful lot. It’s not set up to cope with that and you shouldn’t have to either.

Unless you know what the weight on the scale represents for you each time you use it, there is no earthly point in stepping on. None. An isolated measurement that is emotionally interpreted is worse than useless.

If I step on the scale at any of these following times, I know the result will be skewed and I’m prepared for that:

  • the day after a heavy training day (up 1-2 lbs) or multiple training days (2-3lbs)
  • pre/early period or during ovulation (up 2-3lbs)
  • day after drinking an insane amount of water (down as much as 3lbs)
  • day after oriental food with much sodium (up as much as 5lbs)
  • after a couple of days of reduced sleep (up 2-3lbs, sometimes more)
  • day after a big meal or salty one (up as much as 5lbs)
  • day after a low-carb day (down 1-2lbs)
  • during periods of extreme stress (can be all over the board)

So here’s my personal guideline for when I should not step on a scale:

Do not step on a scale whenever you lack the means to assess and use the information that it gives you impartially and without judgement. 

If it’s not going to give you useful information, why bother getting a reading at all?

This also means that if you are a person who has an emotional connection of any sort with weight, you should not step on the scale when feeling vulnerable due to:

  • fatigue
  • worry
  • relationship distress
  • hunger
  • anxiety of any sort
  • work stress
  • an eating disorder*
  • just feeling bad for whatever reason
  • guilt at overindulging
  • guilt at eating normally but calling it overindulging because you are very hard on yourself and need a hug more than a weigh-in
  • unrealistic expectations of weight loss

If you’re only doing it as affirmation that you should feel bad, then stop. Unless you can look at that number and see it simply as a coalescing of your momentary relationship with gravity and a hundred other factors, you will give it more importance than is deserves and you will not know how to use it to plan for your own improvement.

It’s a measurement. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Using it as a tool to beat yourself up is unfair to you and yet many people do so.

Of course the corollary of this is that you need to learn how to use that tool, if you intend to use it at all.

  • You need to assess without judgement what it tells you about your momentary state. A piece of metal and plastic does not deserve any power over your mind.
  • You must see it as quantitative, not qualitative. Your body is still fucking awesome, no matter what it weighs. What you do with it matters far more than what the scale calls it.
  • Be clear about your goals. Are they weight loss? Body composition change? Strength gains? Are you using the right form of measurement to track each?
  • Make sure you have a plan that is directly linked to your goals. And that you’re doing it.
  • Control your variables:
    • Use the same scale each time. They vary quite a bit.
    • Make sure the batteries are fresh. This matters. Trust me.
    • Weigh in at roughly the same time of day and in approximately the same attire.
    • Acknowledge any influencing factors (like those listed above) that might affect the results. Expect deviance. You’re human.
    • Do measurements as well as weight if your goal is body composition change. Learn to use those as well. Put your eggs in more than one basket.
    • Relax and keep living.
  • Look for the general trend over time, rather than daily continuous weight changes.
  • Keep track of other metrics also, like your sport performance improvement. Frankly these matter more, because they are often the key to the changes you want to make.
  • Track what you do to achieve the results you want. Adjust as needed, but place more daily importance on the process than the results.
  • If you see things you can’t figure out, get qualified help with interpreting them.

*On a totally serious note, if you suspect you or a friend have a real problem with the perception of weight, body image, or eating and exercise habits and how they relate to health, please don’t carry that alone. (If it’s your friend, or if you’re a coach and it’s your client, don’t try to counsel them through it. You’re not equipped no matter how well-intentioned.) You or they need professional, qualified help from those equipped to deal with all aspects of eating disorders. Go see your doctor and get a referral. Do not mess with that stuff. Really. Take it seriously and get help.

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