Using your scales wrong? There is a better method.

Stepping on bathroom scales is the most popular method of tracking fat loss. But the usual measuring strategies may not be right for women, as some days they tend to hold more water than others due to monthly hormone fluctuations and exercise. This article explores a more reliable way to measure body mass to get a clearer picture of your progress.

In recent years, the bathroom scales have received more bad publicity than pop stars in teenage magazines. Few electronic devices are associated with as much anxiety, tears, hair loss and chocolate consumption, yet somehow you will find one stashed under the sink in almost every woman’s bathroom.

Scales are what they are, a measuring instrument. They measure the strength of your gravitational attraction to the surface of the planet in whichever mass units you set them up with. Since determining your mass (commonly known as weight) is the only thing they are capable of, it is a fair call that scales alone will not give you a clear picture of how your exercise, food and sleeping habits are working for you. But don’t toss them out of the window just yet! Scales can be an indispensable part of your arsenal, once you know how to use them to their best capabilities.

What is weight, really?

Weight loss is used interchangeably with fat loss. In reality, the scales are not capable of telling you if you are losing fat, only the changes in your total mass, which consists of:

  • Fat mass
  • Lean mass – the water, the bones, the muscles, the organs, the hair, the food inside your stomach and pretty much anything else.

Just like fat mass, lean mass is not constant. Amounts of water, in particular, can change drastically from day to day, causing a few panic attacks upon weigh-ins. Muscle mass usually takes more time to change significantly. Bone mass – even longer. There are many variables.

This is why it is better to reduce a margin of error by excluding the outliers.

A better method to track fat loss

There are many suggestions on how to track.

Stepping on the scales weekly or bi-weekly works great for people with a lot of fat to lose, provided there are no chronic conditions or prescriptions interfering with fat loss, they will see numbers dropping fast with a few very comfortable changes, and most, if not all of the mass lost, will be coming from fat.

If you don’t have that much fat to lose or are looking to gain some muscle, using the scales can become tricky. Often, whether you weigh yourself daily, weekly or bi-weekly, numbers just don’t make sense. This is the classic case of doing everything right, but not losing or gaining weight.

Let’s see how it works in real life.

Imagine a lady. We’ll call her Sarah. She’s 159 cm tall, overall healthy, but wants to stop depending on Spanx for public events. Sarah started eating till she is just barely full, began to fill half of her plate with veggies, now skips the desserts and has signed up with her local gym. Sarah has been measuring her weight daily:

Sunday – 58 kg
Monday – 59.1 kg
Tuesday – 58.4 kg
Wednesday – 57.7 kg
Thursday – 57.6 kg
Friday – 57.4 kg
Saturday – 57.6 kg
Sunday – 58.2 kg

Provided that Sarah took her very first measurement on Sunday and calculated the average of the eight days she recorded, the result will be 58 kg – exactly the same 58 kg she started with. Ugh.

If Sarah were weighing herself only on Sundays, she would end up with 58.2 kg – 200 g gained, despite her very solid effort. Well, that, perhaps, is a sign that she can safely go back to chocolate chip brownies.

Not so fast.

If you take a good look at the numbers, you will notice two days where Sarah gained some significant grams. The Monday, as well as the second Sunday.

So, what happened the day before Monday? On Sunday evening, the very first day of her new plan (Sarah is my hero, she chose not to wait for Monday to start), she had her very first gym session, which was a blast. But during her session, Sarah got caught by the exercise endorphins and slightly overestimated her capabilities. When she woke up Monday morning, she was sore everywhere. She employed a special ninja technique to roll off the bed, decided to opt out of high heels for today and penguin-walked to the scales in anticipation of good news.

After all the efforts, Sarah gained 1.1 kg. Damn it!

But there was nothing abnormal. Overextending herself and tearing lots of muscle fibres created some swelling – the body has kept more water around the affected tissues. As Sarah’s muscles recover, this extra water will be gone in a day or two. Post-exercise weight increases are very common in new exercisers, and will subdue when the body adapts to working out. And we see exactly that in the coming days. Until her weight starts creeping back on Saturday and another massive increase on Sunday.

Looking at the data, you may assume that Sarah chose to participate in a pizza fest over the weekend. But Sarah claims that she stuck solidly to her plan. So, what really happened?

Saturday happened to be the first day of periods. Besides feeling overall bad and holding more water during these days, many women tend to get bloated, somewhat constipated and don’t digest their food as efficiently. Hence, the increase.

If Sarah had hired a male trainer, she could have been too shy to tell about the special days. If the trainer calculated by average or used weekly weigh-ins as the tracking method, he or she could have concluded that Sarah is not losing fat and needs a reality check talk about her weekend overeating and lying.

However, if the trainer calculated the median of the eight entries Sarah provided, it would paint a very different picture: the median value equals to 57.5 kg.

The median of Sarah’s eight days suggests that Sarah has lost 500 g. Excellent result by all definitions.

So, there we have it.

Sundays only weigh-ins: gained 200 g.
Average of daily weigh-ins: no progress
Median of daily weigh-ins: lost 500 g.

Exactly the same data. Three completely different interpretations.

Why use the median?

If you recall Sarah’s data entries, there were two days with abnormally high fluctuations. Those are the outliers. If you calculate the mean (average) value of your weight entries, the outliers can skew the final value in whichever direction. When using the median, these outliers will not influence the final value to a great extent, and you will get a much clearer picture of what is happening with your weight. Chances are, it will save you a few nerve cells. It will also allow you to make better decisions as to whether your current plan is working for you or needs adjustments. Sarah’s plan, for example, was working great for her. She didn’t require any changes.

Interpreting data

I am a big fan of data. Unlike our emotions and concerns, data is cold and unbiased. Good data is essential for decision-making and can help prevent us from doing stupid things that can harm us. But data interpretation is not fail-proof. Sometimes, the numbers may seem iffy. This is where we need to pause, listen to our gut and think. Don’t dismiss your own feelings just because values don’t add up with your efforts. Think. Your feelings and intuition are just as important as cold hard numbers.

What could have happened? How do you know if your efforts pay off or don’t? Are there any other indicators that you are on the right path? Perhaps, you feel more energetic? Smile more? Or, maybe, you enjoy yourself for the first time in years?

Finally, are you sure you correctly interpreted the data you have?

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