We live on a gigantic ball with a massive iron core surrounded by a hot melted goo of silicates with a thin crust of rock on top.
This ball is so big that when all of the atoms inside it exert gravitational force on the atoms in your body, they overpower your atoms and pull you down. If not for the rocky crust getting in the way, you’d go hurtling straight down to the middle of the planet.
As it turns out, you can put a device under your body which will measure how hard the planet is pulling you down. In the old days this was calculated by how much the planet’s pull was able to stretch a spring in the device. Modern devices use circuits which bend under the pressure, giving a digital reading of this gravitational force.
We call these devices scales, and the number they display, our weight. And this little number causes no end of trouble for people trying to choose healthier habits for a fitter life.
Your wellness is a fuzzy, constantly changing metric. How you look and feel is a complicated stew of nutrition, exercise, mental well-being, and environmental factors. But a scale cuts through that confusion and serves up a hard, cold number. This makes your weight an attractive thing to keep track of.
However, there are a number of serious issues that arise from tracking your weight, which ultimately create more harm than good. In this lesson we’ll go through all the problems the scale creates and show you how to use one correctly.
Problem 1: WEIGHT IS A DUMB NUMBER
Your body isn’t a block of metal. It’s a squishy, living bag full of blood, bone, tissue, and organs. When you say “I weigh this many kilograms/pounds” you’re getting what we call a dumb number. This number has nothing to say about how much of your mass is fat, muscle, bone, organ, or water. Your weight is one of the LEAST useful metrics to know about yourself. It gives you very little insight into what’s actually going on with your body.
The most obvious example of this is the paradox of the obese athlete. Most professional athletes qualify as overweight or obese according to the BMI scale (a calculation of weight divided by the square of height). This happens because they have exceptional body composition, with low body fat and high muscle mass. All that muscle adds a lot of weight.
Same height and weight, but completely different fitness levels.
We often see people bumping into this problem when they train with Kenzai. They’ll get in touch, concerned that their weight hasn’t budged, or even worse, that it’s gone up since they started training. Our first question is, “How are your clothes fitting?” to which the answer is usually “Well, I guess they’re a little looser.”
Loose clothes mean one thing and one thing only — fat loss. So if they’ve clearly lost fat but haven’t seen a weight change, what could possibly account for the new mass? The only answer can be new muscle. In terms of fitness, this is a TOTAL WIN. The person’s body is carrying less fat and more muscle, which is THE recipe for looking and feeling good. And yet, they’re still feeling deflated because the number on the scale wasn’t what they were expecting.
This is madness. Wellness is about your energy levels, mood, and how you perceive yourself in the mirror. None of these things are reflected in your weight. And yet we give this dumb number HUGE influence over our emotions.
This is no joke. We’ve seen Kenzai trainees having an excellent program, hitting all their marks, looking great and feeling strong and vibrant. Then one day they get on a scale, and because they don’t like the number they see, lose all momentum and confidence, start to doubt themselves and the program, and ultimately fade away. All that hard work and promise, squandered because of a dumb number on a scale. Madness!
But wait, you might say. I have a smart scale! I’m not just looking at the dumb number, I can see my body fat, muscle mass, water content, and it all syncs directly with my phone. Surely this is useful information to track?
Problem 2: SMART SCALES AREN'T AS SMART AS YOU THINK
When affordable smart scales first started hitting the market, we were hopeful that it would break the spell of weight being such an undeservedly powerful metric. But it hasn’t worked out for a few reasons.
First, despite their smarts, these scales still blast your weight front and center. Below is a collection of user interfaces from a few of the best selling smart scales. As you can see, one number dominates them all. Weight is still implied to be the most important metric about your body (when it’s the least important!).
This can lead people into thinking “Sure, according to the scale, I lost some body fat, but look at my weight, it’s stuck!” Madness.
Second, these scales over-promise and under-deliver on what they’re actually able to know about what’s going on in your body.
To measure things like body fat and muscle mass, a smart scale will send a small electrical impulse up one leg, and pick up that signal as it travels down the other leg. On its journey, the impulse will go through skin, muscle, fat, organs and bone, which all create impedance, slowing down the electrical current.
Through some calculations, the scale can take a guess at how much water is in the legs, and from that single data point do its best to calculate your body fat (more fat = less water). Then from that number, the scale will do some second and third order calculations to determine the other metrics, like muscle mass, bone density, etc....
If all of this sounds imprecise, that’s because it is. Smart scales are doing a ton of guess-work, and when compared to precise measurements are usually well off target.
Why do smart scales make mistakes?
- They’re easily confused by your body’s hydration levels.
- The reading can be garbled by moisture or dryness of the feet.
- Changing the surface the scale is on impacts the results.
- The size and location of your feet on the scale will significantly change results.
- Bending the knees, even a little, will change the results.
- Smart scales base their information off your lower body, your overall body shape isn't taken into account.
- Smart scale algorithms break down for people who are particularly short, tall, lean or heavy.
All this means that if you use a smart scale, you shouldn’t hang your hat on any of the measurements it gives you. The best you can do is use the scale in the same context every measurement and hope that while it’s wrong, it’s at least consistently wrong so that you can find the trend lines.
The good news is that most scales will at least get your weight right. However, be aware that any scale can throw you a bad reading anytime. If you use a scale and see a number for your weight which is surprisingly high or low, don’t just take it as written in stone, calibrate the device or cross-check with another scale. We field a lot of worried questions from people who’ve gotten a one-off reading from a scale which turns out to be erroneous!
Problem 3: YOUR "IDEAL WEIGHT" CHANGES
Most people get a number in their head for their weight in their 20s, and psychologically anchor on that number as their ideal weight. But over the years the human body goes through a lot of changes which can affect mass. The body of a 40 year old is completely different from that of a 25 year old. Why then do people berate themselves for not weighing the same as they did a decade earlier.
For example, if a person has been consistently exercising, we typically see that they grow into a larger, more densely muscled frame. This will naturally raise their ideal weight. In later years, the body gradually holds less and less water, meaning weight will drift back down. The body goes through many seasons and your weight changes with each one.
Instead of holding on to a number from the past, you should revise what you consider a good weight every 5 years. This means that you should eat well, exercise, and get into what you consider pretty good shape. Then and only then should you step on a scale, where you’ll see a number which represents a good mass for that moment in time. After 5 years, you should recalibrate, letting go of the old number and creating a new benchmark for what your ideal weight is. This is easier said than done. We speak with many, many people who are stuck on a number from 20 or more years ago, often associated with a particular event like a wedding or sports competition. If you insist on weighing yourself, let old numbers go and step on the scale with a blank slate.
Problem 4: FOCUSING ON WEIGHT TURNS YOU INTO A SMALL-SCOPE BEAN COUNTER
The project of getting in shape is about big things. You want to look and feel good, but deeper than that, you want to unlock your potential and fully express your best self. Inside each of us is a fit, strong, confident person. Fitness helps us uncover that person, and through that process we get to know who we really are. This sounds cheesy but ask anyone who’s made the journey from unhealthy to fit and they’ll confirm it’s about a lot more than losing fat.
Tracking your weight, especially if you do it daily or several times during the week, lowers your sights in an unhelpful way. Weight loss becomes a game of short term gains. You might find yourself playing little tricks to get the numbers to move how you like, such as skipping meals before you weigh in, or checking your weight right after exercise when you know you’ve sweat off a lot of water weight.
These gimmicks might get you a new best score on the scale, but they’re ultimately distractions that take away the deeper joy of getting in shape. If you’re energetic, enjoying your life, able to keep up with friends and family, and feeling that you’re working with your body rather than against it, you’re on the right track, no matter what number the scale tells you. If you’re only eating right and exercising to make the numbers on the machine move down, then you’re going to have a shallow well of motivation when times get tough, and will most likely backslide.
Solutions. How to Skillfully Approach the Bathroom Scale:
Scales are a tool, and like any tool they can be wielded with clumsiness or with skill. Using your scale clumsily will create the problems above, and end up sapping your willpower to continue your fitness effort (exactly the opposite result you wanted when you bought the scale).
Here are some tips to make your scale work for you, not against you.
Tip 1. Any fitness effort should have a wellness first, numbers last approach.
Don’t start your fitness journey with a “goal weight”. Instead, have goals that are more directly related to real wellness. These could be wanting to run a certain distance without feeling winded, being able to do a certain number of pull-ups, fitting into your clothes better, or seeing muscle in the mirror. Your objective is to put in the work to reach these meaningful goals, and then, out of curiosity, check how much you weigh when you’re in that state. This will get you a much better result than slaving away to ding an arbitrary number on the gravitational-force-measuring device.
Some smart scales now come with a “numberless” setting which only shows you your trend lines without numerals attached. This is a great way to go if you find that you obsess over numbers.
When you’re looking and feeling fit, note your weight, body fat, and muscle mass numbers if you like, and make that your new baseline which you can compare down the line. But remember these numbers have a 5 year expiration date!
Tip 2. If you want to check your weight often, be consistent.
Smart scales and app syncing make it very easy to track weight daily or weekly. If you want to use your scale like this for long term tracking, think of yourself as the subject of a research study, and reduce the number of variables.
Use the scale in the same place at the same time each day. The best time for this is immediately after you wake up and have gone to the bathroom.
If you really want consistency, then get yourself into a DEXA scan once or twice a year. This is a medical quality scan that will eliminate all fuzziness from your numbers and visually image your fat, muscle, and bone structure. There’s no better way to really see what’s going on with your body composition over time.
Tip 3. Think like a scientist.
If you can get over the emotional response to seeing your weight, and shift into a more cool, scientific relationship with the number, you’ll have better results. At that point, your weight becomes a kind of background datapoint that you can explore throughout the year. You might notice it slowly changes through the seasons, or that one particular eating or exercise style had a bigger impact than others.
Seeing your weight going up or down doesn’t have to mean personal failure or success, it just shows your body dynamically reacting to the stimuli you’re giving it, by holding a different combination of water, fat, and muscle than before. Stick with your fitness plan and don’t assign good or bad meaning to the numbers your scale tells you. Wellness first, numbers last!
Tip 4. If the scale is a distraction, let it go.
A lot of people have so much anxiety rolled up into being weighed that no matter how hard they try they can’t escape the judgmental feelings that come with those little numbers on the screen. For people in this situation, our advice is to just put the scale away. It’s not an ally in your journey. There’s no particular reason for you to know the planet’s gravitational pull on you at any particular time. There are so many better things to check, like how clothes are fitting and how you visually appear. These are the metrics that reflect your real progress, without all the negative emotion that being weighed dredges up.
If you’ve let go of weighing yourself, you’ll still have times in life such as the doctor’s office where you’ll need to get on a scale. When those come up, try to remember this article and don’t let the number have power over you.
The bathroom scale seems like such a small and tangential fitness topic, but believe it or not we’ve seen it create major problems for hundreds of our clients over the years. Don’t let a dumb number on a machine get in your head and sabotage your fitness efforts. That number is the LEAST important thing about your health and wellness!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder