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You've been sticking to your new eating plan and exercising regularly, and you've improved your overall attitude about staying healthy. You're feeling great; that is, until you step onto the scale and find your motivation deflating quicker than a balloon left in the sun too long. You can't believe it; after all your hard work you've gained two pounds! What's that all about?
Now before you go reaching for the Haagen-Dazs or sleep in through your morning cardio class, consider this: Stepping on the scale may not be the best way for you to assess your progress.Why Scales Sometimes Lie
The scale measures weight -- not overall fitness-- and it doesn't differentiate between fat and muscle. Muscle is denser than fat and tends to weigh more.
Try to visualize this: Which weighs more, five pounds of feathers or five pounds of lead? Neither -- they both weigh five pounds -- but you're going to be looking at a whole lot of feathers. The same holds true for fat and muscle.
When exercise is a significant part of a weight-loss program, the scale can feel less like a friend and more like a foe, because it often reflects small gains (in muscle mass) before showing substantial losses (in fat). Exercise helps you to burn off plump, fluffy fat cells, while building dense, compact muscle tissue, and you may seem to gain before you lose. But don't despair: Over time, the scale will become a more faithful indicator of actual weight loss.
As rational as this explanation is, it doesn't lessen the impact of seeing that number on the scale, because a lot of emotions come into play each time we step onto it. "For most women who have dealt with [weight] issues, the scale just isn't a very supportive tool." says Marsha Hudnall, Director of Nutrition at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a weight-loss retreat for women in the mountains of Vermont where the philosophy is less about "How much do I weigh?" and more about "Why do I weigh what I do?"
If you are building muscle and burning fat, you'd get a much better indicator of your progress if you track your fat-muscle ratio. There are three basic techniques for measuring the ratio of muscle to fat.
While this is a very accurate means for measuring body fat, the results can be affected by fluid intake or the consumption of foods high in water content (like fruits and certain vegetables) prior to the weighing, or by the patient's comfort with holding her breath for 20 seconds or more. Finally, this is a very expensive test and is usually conducted only at university-based weight management centers.
The best place to have this test taken is in a doctor's office. You can also get this done at your local gym by a personal trainer. However, the accuracy of this test can be affected by the skills of the person giving it, and by the amount of water retained by the body, which can fluctuate monthly for women, or even throughout the day.
This is the least accurate of the three methods, but it can be good way to track month-to-month changes in body composition. Again, you can get this done at your local gym or fitness center.
The body mass index, or BMI, is another means for measuring body fat by calculating a ratio of height to weight. The basic formula is calculated by dividing your height in meters squared into your weight in kilograms.
Basic BMI guidelines are as follows:
While this is a neat little system, it does have its limitations. For example, a person who has a lot of muscle mass or water volume (such as an athlete) will appear to be overweight, while a person who has a small frame and lean muscle may appear to be underweight. Pregnant woman and the elderly will also get inaccurate readings using the standard BMI.
As with any test, it's important to consult with your doctor to find the technique that is right for your body type.
This is as simple as breaking out the old measuring tape and measuring your bust, waist, hips, upper arm, thigh, calf, and ankle. These are the areas where the body tends to store fat. You'll probably see more encouraging changes in these measurements as you progress in your program than you will by standing on a scale.
One really important measurement is the hip-to-waist ratio, taken by dividing your hip measurement into your waist measurement. Studies have shown that people with a higher percentage of fat in their waists than their hips are at a higher risk for developing heart disease, diabetes and strokes.Changes in Clothing Size and Fit
According to fitness expert and columnist Carol Krucoff, "Your clothes don't lie!" Krucoff, an A.C.E. certified fitness instructor and author of the book Healing Moves, believes the best indicators for weight loss can be found right in your own closet. The "clothes test" is her personal choice for monitoring her weight. "I have a pair of old jeans from high school that I periodically try on," she says. When the jeans feel a little snug in places they didn't before, she knows that it's time to put in a little extra time at the yoga studio. The satisfaction of seeing your clothes become less snug, or shopping for smaller sizes, is far more rewarding than any number on a scale.
How do you feel? Chances are, if you've taken off weight and added muscle, you'll have more energy for your daily activities. And you'll definitely notice changes at the gym, where you'll have more stamina and strength. If you've added another step in step class, can lift progressively more weight for more reps, or have doubled your walking mileage, take it as proof positive that you're making progress.The "See Fat" Method
It's as simple as it sounds. Take off all your clothes, stand in front of the mirror, jump up and down, see what jiggles. You might feel a little silly doing this, but the idea is to encourage familiarity with your body. As the weight comes off, you'll see less jiggling in those places that shouldn't. The point is not to fixate on what you don't like (namely the fat), and to focus on the positive changes in your body (more muscle tone and definition). Krucoff believes it is "important for people to look in the mirror and see what's right, [to] see the strong points and work away from only seeing the negative."
Recognizing your patterns around food, and changing them, is more helpful than fixating on how much you weigh. The best way to do this is by keeping a food journal in which you track what you eat, when you eat, and why. "The food journal is an important tool for seeing patterns and understanding where your challenges lie," says Marsha Hudnall. It's a means of documenting positive changes that aren't necessarily reflected by stepping on the scaleChanges in Your Monthly Food Bills
Changes in your food bills can be an indicator of changes in your weight. As you make progress, you may find not only that you're spending less money on food, but also that your food buying patterns are changing. More green in the grocery cart can translate to more green in your wallet!Compliments from Family and Friends
It's easy to lose objectivity around your weight loss, especially when looking at yourself every day. But compliments are proof that people around you notice how different you look in your clothes and that you have more pep in your step.Improvements in Your Quality of Life
This is probably the best measure of your progress. When tasks like taking care of the kids or tending to the house no longer leave you winded, or you find you can function without always being tired, you know you're making strides to a healthier you. And you don't need a scale to help you measure that!