What if the gas gauge in your car measured the level of every fluid—the oil, water, windshield fluid, and gas? It would be completely ineffective. You would have no way of knowing if you needed gas!
The same goes for the scale—it’s an all-in-one gauge. It measures everything in your body all at once, not just fat, but muscle, water, bone and everything else in your body at that moment. If it goes up, you have no way of knowing what increased. If it goes down, you have no way of knowing what decreased. Yet those numbers going up or down can send you into a tailspin of thoughts, worries, and guilt.
If you want to lose weight to improve health, this fact about the scale matters a lot. For example, if you lose weight, up to thirty percent of it could be muscle loss.1 According to the research, what that means for your future is less independence as you age and a lower life expectancy.2 Not exactly what you had in mind when you set out to lose weight!
So why do we use body weight?
Your doctor uses weight to help predict if you will be healthy in the future. But does it really predict your health? Over the past two decades, there have been increased pleas for medical professionals to use fitness as a measure of health along with body weight.3 That’s because there is mounting evidence that being a normal weight may not be enough to be healthy and that being fit plays a major role in health.
For example, people who are in the obese or overweight category but are also in the moderate to high fitness category, have a significantly lower risk of dying from any cause and and a 50% lower risk of developing depression than people who are thin and unfit.4, 5 Age does not seem to be a deterrent to this power of exercise either. Older people who tested high on a muscle power test lived nine years longer, no matter what their weight, than people with a lower muscle power level.6 Clearly, the focus for health should not be on how to lose weight, but on how to improve fitness at every weight.
The problem is that fitness is not as convenient to measure as body weight, so we use weight as a measure of health. As Bodie Thoene is quoted as saying, “what is right (or true) is often forgotten by what is convenient”.
What is weight loss success?
You may use the scale to measure your progress toward being healthy, looking better, and feeling better about yourself. It seems so straightforward. Burn more calories than you eat and the scale should go down, like an ATM machine telling the difference between deposits and withdrawals. It’s such a nice neat little equation and if it worked, weight loss would not be a billion-dollar industry. Unfortunately, your body is not a machine and the way it processes calories is far from predictable.
Where did that weight number you are trying to get to come from? What you used to weigh when you felt better? That number represents a different body—with a different mix of fat, muscle, bone, and water—than you have right now. Is it a recommended number based on a chart for your height that was invented by a 19th century mathematician?7 The number is straightforward, but what it represents is not.
The fact is that number does not mean better health, a longer life, more strength, feeling better, functioning better, less pain. So what is the point of using weight as a measure of success? The truth is, the scale is not a way to measure progress toward what you truly want from weight loss; it never was and it never will be. Let’s find a better way to measure what you really want from weight loss.
The new and improved way to exercise for weight loss starts here
The new and improved way to exercise for weight loss starts by trading your weight goal for your Core Why. Getting to the heart of what you really want from weight loss allows you to choose what is worth your time, money, and energy, gives you a true measure of your progress, and lowers your stress level about staying at your goal when you reach it. It’s not as neat as the scale, but it is much more effective.
To find your Core Why for weight loss, start by brainstorming the answers to the following questions:
- What does weight loss really mean for my body?
- What do I want my body to feel like at an ideal weight?
- What do I want my body to be able to do as a result of losing weight?
- What does weight loss really mean for my mind?
- How will my thoughts about myself be different?
- How will it change my level of stress?
- What does weight loss really mean for my heart?
- How would losing weight improve my ability to enjoy life?
- What is most important in my life that I believe my weight is limiting?
Look over your answers and notice a common theme of what you really want by losing weight. Ask yourself “What is the one word that describes how I want to feel as a result of weight loss?” Energized? Confident? Comfortable? Free? Happy? Peaceful? That is your Core Why.
Instead of exercising to burn calories, exercise to feel more of this in your whole person each time. If exercise does not make you feel this way, the problem is not you, it’s the exercise. Adjust the type, duration, location, intensity, and any other variables so exercise leaves you feeling more like you want to feel from weight loss.
Want numbers to tell if you are making progress? Assign a number to the level of your Core Why before and after exercising. For example, if your word is ‘energized’, pause before exercise and ask “What is my energy level now on a scale of 1-5?”, with one representing low energy, and five representing all the energy you need. As you exercise, notice what is happening to that number and adjust what you are doing so it increases your energy. Then ask yourself again when you finish exercising. Writing down the numbers, along with anything else you notice, allows you to see your progress. If that number goes down, make a note of why exercise may have drained your energy. If the number goes up, make a note of what worked. Will this work for weight loss? Yes! Because weight loss is not the goal, and just burning calories will not get you what you really want from your efforts. Instead, you will be writing your own best guide for exercising to get what you truly want from weight loss for your whole person.
But what about the scale?
Whether you choose to weigh yourself is not the issue, it’s how much you are asking the scale to tell you something it can never measure. Shift your mindset from the scale to your Core Why and you will no longer be a slave to pushing your body to do what burns more calories and fat (another rough estimate at best!), and risking feeling worse from exercise. You will be exercising to get what you truly want from weight loss. Motivation science is clear: this internal guidance is a much more effective way to stay motivated to exercise in the long run.8
If your brain starts to tell you this is wimping out, remember that our culture is stuck on the scale and obsessed with calories, which are ineffective tools at best. Stay focused on exercising for your Core Why and you will be healthy, fit, and well, now and in the future.
- The scale is an all-in-one measurement and it does not measure what you want from weight loss.
- In research, weight does not connect very strongly to health; fitness does.
- What you really want from weight loss is a more accurate guide than a goal weight.
- Your Core Why is the way to measure success with your weight loss efforts.
- Cava E, Yeat NC, Mittendorfer B. Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss. Adv Nutr. 2017;8(3):511-519. Published 2017 May 15. doi:10.3945/an.116.014506
Phu S, Boersma D, Duque G. Exercise and Sarcopenia. J Clin Densitom. 2015 Oct-Dec;18(4):488-92.
- Ross R, Blair SN, Arena R, Church TS, Després JP, Franklin BA, Haskell WL, Kaminsky LA, Levine BD, Lavie CJ, Myers J, Niebauer J, Sallis R, Sawada SS, Sui X, Wisløff U; American Heart Association Physical Activity Committee of the Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health; Council on Clinical Cardiology; Council on Epidemiology and Prevention; Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; Council on Functional Genomics and Translational Biology; Stroke Council. Importance of Assessing Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Clinical Practice: A Case for Fitness as a Clinical Vital Sign: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016 Dec 13;134(24):e653-e699.
- Ortega FB, Ruiz JR, Labayen I, et alThe Fat but Fit paradox: what we know and don’t know about it British Journal of Sports Medicine 2018;52:151-153.
- Katie M. Becofsky, Xuemei Sui, Duck-chul Lee, Sara Wilcox, Jiajia Zhang, Steven N. Blair, A Prospective Study of Fitness, Fatness, and Depressive Symptoms, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 181, Issue 5, 1 March 2015, Pages 311–320,
- The ‘fat but powerful’ paradox: association of muscle power and adiposity markers with all-cause mortality in older adults from the EXERNET Multi-center Study, Julian Alcazar, David Navarrete-Villanueva, Asier Mañas, Alba Gómez-Cabello, Raquel Pedrero-Chamizo, Luis M. Alegre, Jose G. Villa-Vicente, Narcis Gusi, Marcela González-Gross, Jose A. Casajús, German Vicente-Rodríguez, Ignacio Ara
- How useful is Body Mass Index (BMI) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/255712#:~:text=BMI%20is%20derived%20from%20a,their%20height%20in%20meters%20squared.
- Teixeira PJ, Carraça EV, Markland D, Silva MN, Ryan RM. Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012;9:78. Published 2012 Jun 22. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-78