Historically and socially, the barometer for “success” related to health and fitness has been the number on the scale. Many individuals, including our clients, obsessively monitor how much the scale ticks up or down over a period of time. Observing a decrease in body weight is motivational for some because it symbolizes progress toward a fitness goal. For others, seeing so much as a 2-pound increase from one day to the next generates panic and a sense of failure, which ultimately detracts from other measures of progress a client has made.
Why is body weight so seemingly important? The number on the scale, just like a blood pressure reading or resting heart rate, is quantifiable and tangible. Take a minute to reflect on the clients you’ve trained throughout your career. How many were motivated by a goal of weight loss? Compare that to those who sought your services to feel better, sleep better, improve cognitive function, feel more productive at work or to remodel a current lifestyle? The former likely “outweighs” the latter. Weight loss may be an outcome of positive behavioral modification. However, weight gain or loss is not, by itself, a measure of health and fitness.
In the absence of other measurements, the number on the scale represents one thing: a person’s individual relationship with the earth’s gravitational pull. This is not to minimize the value of identifying and monitoring a client’s body weight. Instead, it is meant to highlight the value of looking at the bigger picture.
An evolving body of literature encourages health and exercise professionals to monitor more than body weight and/or BMI. Although weight control is important for reducing one’s risk for cardiovascular disease and other hypokinetic diseases, studies have uncovered additional and potentially more telling information about mortality risk factors. For example, a 2016 study examining fitness, fatness and mortality revealed that reduced exercise capacity is a powerful predictor of mortality risk, whereas BMI was less influential (McAuley et al., 2016). Further, a recent study conducted by York University found that, regardless of body weight, fitter individuals were less likely to develop high blood sugar, blood pressure and triglycerides when compared to less-fit study participants (Do et al., 2017).
What does this mean for health and exercise professionals? It means we are uniquely positioned (and supported by an ever-growing body of research) to communicate the value of achieving non-scale victories.
For example, Lee Jordan, an ACE Certified Health Coach and Behavior Change Specialist, makes it a point to encourage and nurture his clients’ non-scale successes. “If I want to see oranges hanging off the branches of my tree, I must ensure that I have not planted an apple tree. As a health coach, if I want my clients to see beyond the scale for victories, then I must ensure that we have planted the seed to do so. Non-scale victories begin in the early stages of health coaching as I assist clients in discovering and cultivating their wellness vision to be more than a number on a scale or a garment.”
Jordan continues by offering some of the non-scale victories his clients have shared with him. “The first time they could fly and only have to buy one airline seat rather than two; being able to coach his son’s baseball team; being able to hold the door open for his wife; being able to ride a roller coaster because she can fit in the seat; being able to sit in furniture without fear of breaking it. People think the number on the scale is what they seek, but it’s not,” explains Jordan. “They seek what they believe it represents, which is different for each person. As a health coach, part of my responsibility is to recognize that my clients know themselves the best, and I am only there to help them connect the dots on who they are and who they want to be.”
Health and exercise professionals can start planting the seeds of non-scale success by consciously and comprehensively evaluating aspects of fitness lifestyle. Consider asking clients questions such as:
- How are you sleeping? Do you feel rested when you rise?
- How is your overall energy? How is your energy throughout the day?
- Have you noticed any change in your level of interest in social activities or events?
- What changes have you noticed in your cognitive function and focus?
- How are you feeling about projects at work?
- On a scale of 1-10, what is your perceived level of stress?
- How often do you feel anxious or worried?
- What activities have you done that bring you joy?
You can integrate these questions into casual conversations during a session or in follow-up conversations. It’s important to evaluate changes related to a client’s fitness and track those changes over time. Leading a fitness lifestyle is about the less tangible aspects and each client will have a different perspective on what “fit for life” means. It’s our job to help them see the bigger life picture and to then complete that picture. Stepping on an off the scale will not reveal these types of transformations. Instead, answers to these questions reveal much more—they are measurements of energy and vitality.
Do, K. et al. (2017). Association between cardiorespiratory fitness and metabolic risk factors in a population of mild to severe obesity. BMC Obesity.
McAuley, P. et al. (2016). Fitness, fatness and mortality: The Fit (Henry Ford Exercise Testing) Project. The American Journal of Medicine, 129, 9, 960-965.