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July 9, 2014, 12:00AM PT in Fitnovatives Blog  |  0 Comments

Why We Need to Stop Obsessing over the Scale

Woman on scale 

“Once a doctor visit.” This is my personal answer to the question, “How often do you weigh yourself?” And I’m serious. At the extremes, weight matters. In the middle, not so much.

The response I usually get to my comment above is something like, “Well, you don’t need to worry about your weight because you’re in shape.” Exactly. The end.

But not really. Despite consistently preaching the message that weight is not the gold standard of fitness, too many people and too many personal-training clients remain overly focused on the scale.

And research isn’t helping the cause either. The National Weight Control Registry, long touted as a top source of insights into the behaviors and habits of people who have lost weight and kept it off (qualified registrants must have lost at least 30 pounds and maintained it for at least one year). One of the behaviors that is characteristic of this group is that they weigh themselves daily. Just because they do it, doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. They are the only group we have data on—it doesn’t mean what they do is THE model for successful behavior. The variables involved in “weight loss” are too numerous to isolate one as an absolute for all. Just because we’ve studied their behaviors doesn’t automatically make daily weigh-ins the only way to make progress with health.

Research Follies

And it’s like this with a lot of areas of fitness—quite honestly we need to stop waiting until a study is done to prove what the wisdom of our bodies is telling us—if only we’d listen.

To measure something that changes in small ways on a daily basis is mostly pointless. But to do so while also attaching high emotional value to the outcome makes things go from pointless to dangerous. Do you measure the height of your children every single day? Of course not, because it would be silly to do that since it changes so little every day. And if you flipped out because they weren’t noticeably taller from one day to the next everyone would rightly think you’d lost your mind.

Must. Keep. Losing…Until You Disappear?

A story from a client of mine illustrates how a hyper-focus on the scale can be problematic, even when there is progress. After reaching a high of 380 pounds during years of worrying about weight, my client began doing water workouts and walking on her own before we even started working together. One day, after having lost hundreds of pounds, she came to me and mentioned a concern that her weight loss had plateaued. At 165 pounds. On a 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Factoring in the extra skin she was carrying, that weight was very reasonable. I had to explain to her that her three decades of focusing on the scale as the basis for her existence had just come to an end and that she needed a new standard by which to measure her fitness.

As I mentioned earlier, weight matters at the extremes. It’s impossible to have optimal health at 300 pounds. A few weeks before my dad died he was sent to an airport to get on a freight scale to learn his weight. He was 424 pounds when he died. And of course weight is important when someone is experiencing the negative effects of being drastically underweight. But what about for those who don’t fall into either of these two extremes?

From Objective and Meaningless to Subjective and Powerful

Our big problem is our desire to categorize and standardize everything. Some things—like quality of life—cannot be quantified.

If you have clients who are too focused on the scale, you will likely not get far trying to convince them with facts about how pointless it is to do so. Here is how you can work on changing their focus:

1. Find out what they care about most in life—what makes their lives enjoyable, gives it meaning, and what they would like to do if they were fully physically capable.

2. As they are talking about their results (or lack of them) in terms of their weight, ask them something specific about a physical experience they recently had relating to whatever their answer was for question #1.

3. Repeat.

For example, I had a client who was quite tall, but 350 pounds when we began working together. Because he was tall and in his early 30s, he was still relatively mobile, but he knew that he needed a turnaround in his life. While interviewing him at the beginning of our training, I discovered that what really motivated him was riding roller coasters with his 10-year old son, but he had been denied entry onto a roller coaster the summer before because he was too heavy. Jackpot.

This was the big motivator. I framed a lot of what we did in his workout program around how it would help him get back to riding the roller coasters, including little things like the ability to endure standing in long lines and getting in and out of the roller-coaster cars.

How Did We Find Happiness Before the Scale Was Invented?

Deep, deep down, most people don’t really care about the number on the scale. They can argue this point, but they’d be wrong because the hyper-focus on the scale clouds the self-awareness to understand the core of human motivation. What we really seek are deeply connected, pleasant feelings in life. Living in a capable body that allows us to stay connected and fully participate in that which we love and to do it with those we love is what we truly seek from fitness.

When this feeling comes alive and grows in you, the scale can say whatever it wants and it will no longer matter. Fitness is doing what you want with your body free of worry or significant limitation. Get off the scale and go live, get active and stay that way. The rest will take care of itself. 

By Jonathan Ross
Jonathan Ross

Jonathan Ross is the two-time recipient of Personal Trainer of the Year awards (2010 IDEA & 2006 ACE), has served as Discovery Health Fitness Expert and hosted the Discovery Health series “Everyday Fitness.” His book, Abs Revealed, delivers a modern, intelligent approach to ab training, and his business, Aion Fitness, delivers exceptional fitness training,speaking, and writing services. Ross is a master trainer for TRX and has shared his renowned thought-leadership philosophy at many conferences and in the media.