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The Bathroom Scale: A Mixed Blessing For Weight-loss Programs

While a bathroom scale can always give you a reasonably accurate measurement of your current weight, it fails to depict the intricate changes occurring in your body during a weight-loss program. That can be a problem.

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The process of losing significant weight is complicated. Some programs like to paint a picture of setting goals and eating specially prepared foods being the way to reach your goal weight and ride off into the sunset a newer, happier you. The beauty of that business model is that most users will reach their goal weight, only to return a year or so later heavier than before. I have seen and worked with many alumni of these programs.

Other approaches rely primarily on exercise as the tool for weight-loss. While I agree that regular vigorous exercise should be the basis of any weight-management program, all the research points to managing food intake as equally important, if not more.

In each of these approaches body weight is often used as the main tool for determining success. That’s a problem. Let’s look at how just focusing on the numbers on the scale tells the wrong story in each of these weight-loss scenarios.

  • Diet-only Programs – calorie or macronutrient-fraction restricted diets focus exclusively on reducing weight as the standard for success. While either of these diet designs, and, for that matter, fad diets, can be very effective at reducing body weight in the short-term, by only focusing on weight-loss, they ignore the metabolic shifts and changes that are occurring. More often than not the end-product will be lost lean body mass in favor of sparing body fat from being metabolized. The goal body weight may be achieved but usually at the expense of muscle tissue, which is essential for maintaining a metabolic rate that can sustain the weight-loss. This is the proverbial “revolving door” of weight management.
  • Exercise-only Programs – designed to reduce weight through regular vigorous exercise. Most good programs combine strength-training with a cardio component and are very effective in restoring fitness and strength. The common complaint and the main reason that users discontinue these programs are because the rate of change is slow. In fact, it is not uncommon for weight to increase in the early stages due to the higher density of muscle versus fat (1 liter of body fat removed for 1 liter of muscle added will result in a net weight-gain of about 1/2 pound). This is a significant disincentive for users seeking to make a significant change in their weight who want to see progress early.

Each of the above programs have the common weaknesses of using weight as a major marker of success and using only one-half of the strategies necessary to achieve significant long-term physique transformation. Any well-designed program will combine moderate dietary changes with regular vigorous exercise. This will promote weight-loss in the form of fat metabolism and will allow the muscle development necessary to sustain and accelerate these changes.

That still leaves the problem of dealing with participants weighing themselves too often to allow for reasonable change to occur. If anything, targeting a specific goal weight should be very long-range and monitoring of progress should not occur as frequently as most programs recommend. By allowing significant time to pass, say one month, between weight measurements, users will have time to note other more important markers of change such as increased energy and vitality, improved strength and endurance, looser clothing and improved mood and sense of well-being.

These, in my opinion, are the real reasons that people should be doing these things. But, the reality is that people want to measure their change. They want to see and say a number. I educate my clients to set long-term measurement goals and focus on lifestyle improvements and what they see when they look in the mirror as the markers of early success. Eventually, they stop relying on the scales and start believing their eyes.

So, if I had to boil a successful weight-loss program down to three key actions, it would be these:

  1. Find a balanced nutritional approach to weight-loss to which you can adhere.
  2. Begin and maintain a regular regimen of vigorous physical exercise.
  3. Throw away your scale, it’s worthless.

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704762904575025313433081780, The Scales Can Lie: Hidden Fat, Ron Winslow, Retrieved January 13, 2014, Dow Jones & Co, 2012.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200410/weight-loss-champions, Weight-Loss Champions, Carlin Fiora, Retrieved January 13, 2014, Sussex Publishers, LLC, 1991-2013.

http://www.livestrong.com/article/438693-a-pound-of-fat-vs-a-pound-of-muscle/, A Pound Of Fat VS. A Pound Of Muscle, Linda Tarr Kent, Retrieved January 13, 2014, Demand Media Inc., 2013.

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