Forget about the Scale!
Do you dread stepping on the scale? It’s okay if you do. I have dreaded stepping on the scale for a long time. I think that I dread stepping on the scale the most after the Christmas Holidays. At a previous company that I had worked for, they had a tradition of hosting a legendary Holiday Party, complete with a multi-tier chocolate fountain. As I am about to step onto the scale, I think about how many strawberries, grapes, slices of pineapple and squares of pound cake I had dipped into that smooth, flowing chocolate fountain while sipping a glass of Pinot Blanc or Riesling. Of course nothing in life comes without a price and the reading on the scale reminds me of the price that I had paid during the Holiday Season.
Sometime ago, I talked with a close friend who had managed to lose 50 pounds over a period of 2 years and asked him for some advice. He told me that he had been successful because he made it a point to exercise everyday. He never deviated from his daily exercise routine even when he was away from home on vacation or business travel. He was meticulous about what he ate and managed to develop a love for salads and preparing salads for himself. (“Pretty typical weight loss advice,” I remember thinking to myself.) It was his last word of advice that I found very surprising. My friend made it a point to weigh himself every single day in the morning. Not only did he weigh himself but he recorded his weight and tracked his weight using an Excel spreadsheet. His Excel spreadsheet that he used to track his weight contained over 2,000 data points! At first I didn’t see the value of this exercise at all. “Why do you need to weight yourself every day?” I thought to myself. Several years later, I realized just how important it is to weigh yourself on a daily basis when I embarked upon my own weight loss journey.
Following a strict diet and exercise routine can be challenging at times because we are all human and life happens. What happens when your best friend is about to get married and you go to Las Vegas for the entire weekend for his bachelor party with a crazy bunch of guys? Do you decline every beer that is offered to you in place of a Diet Coke? What do you think about as you are about to step on the scale after returning from that weekend in Las Vegas? I have news for you. The extra 3 pounds that you gained during that weekend in Las Vegas as a result of eating bottomless bowls of pasta, pizza and tacos does not represent a gain in muscle mass. I am sorry to break it to you but you probably knew that as well. By weighing yourself every day, you can closely monitor the impact of changes to your diet and exercise routine and make changes rapidly before small deviations become large deviations. “But he just told me to forget about the scale in the title of the article,” you must be thinking. That’s right.
When you spend an entire weekend indulging on pizza and beer then you know that the weight that you gained is due to an increase in fat mass. But what happens when you spend an entire month following a strict diet and exercising at the gym? You work with a personal trainer and you run on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day followed by 30 minutes of intense weightlifting. When you step on the scale, you later realize that in spite of all of your hard work, your weight has managed to remain the same. Does that mean that you had wasted all of your time and effort? No, of course it doesn’t mean that. It means that you need to monitor how your body composition is changing. Are you losing fat and gaining muscle mass? If so, then you are doing a great job! So how do you measure changes in body composition? There are several techniques that can give you information about body composition; a few of them are: 1) body fat calipers 2) bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) and 3) Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).
The most simple way to measure changes in body composition is by using body fat calipers. Body fat calipers are inexpensive and measurements can be made without the need for much training. The jaws of the calipers pinch folds of skin at specific sites on the body such as the chest, abdomen and thigh and give you a quick measure of thickness from the Vernier scale. The key thing to keep in mind when using body fat calipers is to focus on the consistency of the measurement and changes over a period of time and not to get too fixated over the absolute number.
Bioelectrical impedance analysis is based on measuring how much opposition there is within the body to the flow of an electrical current through the tissues of the body. Although the idea of passing an electrical current through the body may sound painful or scary, it is actually very safe and painless. The opposition to flow of an electrical current through the body is referred to as “electrical impedance” by Scientists and this measurement allows one to measure total body water (TBW). Measuring TBW makes it possible to measure “fat-free body mass.” Subtracting your “fat-free body mass” from your total mass (that is quite easy to measure as you know) gives you an estimate of your “fat mass.” BIA has been around since the 1980’s and the cost of the machines has become affordable enough now that many local gyms have BIA instruments for their gym members to use.
The most accurate method of determining body composition is using a technique known as Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). DEXA is not something that can be performed in the privacy of your bathroom or your local gym. (Sorry.) DEXA instruments direct two low level x-ray beams towards your bones with different energies. The lower intensity x-ray beam gets absorbed only by your soft tissues (muscle and fat). The higher intensity x-ray beam gets absorbed by both your bones and your soft tissues. The differences in absorption values between these two beams provides you with body composition values such as fat mass along with bone mineral density. If your doctor is concerned that you may be suffering from osteoporosis (bone loss) then they may ask you to get a DEXA scan done. DEXA is also used by serious researchers (who wear lab coats) who study muscle physiology for a living and how diet, exercise and pharmaceuticals can impact your musculoskeletal system.
So what is the take-home message? Stick with a healthy diet that provides you with enough protein and work out on a regular basis with both cardiovascular training and weight-training. (Life is short so treat yourself every once in a while to a chocolate-covered strawberry.) If you your local gym doesn't have a state-of-the-art bioelectrical impedance analysis instrument and you don't have an extra 10k to get your very own, have no fear! One of the best measures of progress that you are making at the gym is actually your pant size not your weight. If you stick with an excellent diet and exercise routine then don’t worry too much about what the bathroom scale says. Worry about losing fat and gaining muscle mass!