A balanced take on the scales: weighing up the pros and cons

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Weighing scales have been around for millennia (if you’re a geek like me you can read more about their history here). They’re probably the most used health measuring tool on planet Earth (and maybe other world’s too, who knows), and they’re responsible for their fair share of strong opinions, heated debates and full-blown arguments. Many swear by them, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession, whilst opponents, particularly from the modern-day fitness world, espouse throwing them out of the nearest window or banishing them to far-away lands.

I thought then that it was high time for a balanced view on the matter, so I’ve weighed in with this blog (couldn’t resist, sorry), dedicated to guiding you through whether you should use them at all, and if so, how often.

Weighing in weekly…or even daily

I’ll be the first to admit, for many years I would discourage my clients from this approach, rolling out the justifications we’ll review in a minute. I’ve mellowed in my old-age and those of you who’ve worked with me or been taught by me on a course will know that one of my favourite sayings is ‘it depends’. That said, I’ve never gone as far as thinking that weighing yourself daily was a good idea, especially as I once worked in a gym with a PT who weighed herself in ounces (something I thought was only reserved for the ingredients of Bake-Off contestants) and would be devastated at the tiniest changes.

Imagine my surprise then this week when, whilst researching for the next balance book/online offering (titled Think: Developing a mindset for lasting success, part 1 of The Art of Balance: How to be fit, healthy and happy), I came across a decent amount of research suggesting that weighing yourself daily might be highly effective. My flat world had just become round!!!

One study of 294 college students found that people weighing themselves daily lost significantly more weight over a 2-year period than those who weighed in daily. Another began with a single weight-loss seminar, after which, half of the 162 attendees were asked to weigh themselves daily, whilst the other half were offered no advice on weighing regularity. Over one year, the men asked to weigh daily lost significantly more than those who were not given advice on weighing frequency. There was no difference for the women though. In the second year of the study, the half originally not advised on weighing frequency were also asked to weigh-in daily and again the men in this group went on to lose significant amounts of weight whilst the women’s weight remained constant.

A review of a wide range of studies on the topic found that both daily and weekly weigh-ins were equally successful, regardless of the other features of the weight loss programme, and one study of over 11,000 participants in Israel discovered that when people visited their GP’s or dietician frequently for weigh-ins on a weight management programme, they were up to 13% more likely to lose a significant amount of weight, in this case at least 5% of their starting weight. This figure is commonly used in the medical world and is considered a decent marker of success.

Consider my eyes opened to new possibilities. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Weight Watchers (now WW of course) and Slimming World had so much success built around their weekly weigh-in models. Regular weighing may of course not be right for everyone, so here’s some guidelines that might help you to decide if it’s right for you.

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Weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

  • You know you’re impatient for results and become demotivated without them. Regular weigh-ins can help provide focus by providing evidence of quick wins. See my recent blog on why so many people love quick wins here.

  • You need a disciplined structure to keep you on track. One of the other big reasons for the success of Slimming Clubs is the public weigh-in; it’s nice to get praise for success and equally it’s nice not to feel like you’ve failed in front of others. If you know this works for you, join a club or replicate it by weighing in with colleagues at work, family or friends. I was amazed by the successes on a weight-loss challenge I helped run for the Bank of Ireland a few years ago which contained a weekly weigh-in and a competition element, people like to win and hate losing (except weight of course).

  • You’re ok seeing progress in smaller chunks. You may have a goal of losing a few stone and daily or weekly weigh-ins will see you chipping away at this pretty slowly, sometimes not at all if weighing daily.

  • In fact, only weigh daily if you can always keep the big picture in mind, the long-term goal. Weight is affected by so many things; hydration levels, food in your stomach, whether you’e been to the loo or not, the menstrual cycle and more besides, that it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a consistent drop in weight. If you’re happy to look for trends over time but need that regular check to keep you on track, it can work for you.

  • You use other monitoring methods alongside it. For example, you might weigh-in daily but do a waist measurement every 1-2 weeks as well. You can also use other tape measure readings, clothing fit and body fat tests if you have access to them. Often if people perform exercise whilst attempting to lose weight, muscle mass increases and so can weight. That doesn’t mean you’ll end up big and bulky though; muscle is very dense and so you actually get firmer and smaller the majority of the time, which is what most people are after. Changes to size and muscle mass will definitely be gradual so performing them fortnightly or even monthly is better.

One of my favourite food psychology researchers, Brian Wansink, suggests that if you do weigh weekly, Wednesday is a good day to choose. Presumably that’s because it’s as far away from the weekend as possibly and you’re more likely to be in the middle of a more structured eating routine. If this isn’t the case for you, just be sure to pick a consistent time and day to make the measurement more consistent. First thing in the morning before food and after going to the loo is always good, and keep clothing consistent (or don’t wear any…unless the scale is on the gym floor)!

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Do not weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

  • You’ve suffered from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, suspect that you might do, or feel that doing so could become obsessive and negatively impact your mood.

  • You’re motivated by seeing bigger changes; some people like the fact that they’ve shifted 7-8 pounds as opposed to just one or two, bigger numbers might be better and if they are, weigh-in less frequently for a higher likelihood of success.

  • Weight is the only measure of progress you are tracking; it’s too easy to get disheartened with the frequent fluctuations caused by other factors.

If this is you, consider weighing less often and pay particular attention to the following essential points…

1) Choose a frequency of weighing that achieves the right balance for you; enough to keep you motivated but no so much that you get disappointed by slow progress or fluctuations from day-to-day

2) Use scales as just one tool in your armoury to track progress. On their own, they only tell a tiny part of the story. Use tape measures, clothing size and body fat percentage alongside these. That way, if your weight increases but you’ve lost fat and you’re smaller, you’ll know you’ve built lean muscle and you can stay happy and motivated

3) Remember to track the process too. Often we focus on the outcome, the weight or shape we want, and forget that it’s the things we do each day that will get us there. One of the three key tenets of the balance approach is ‘You are the sum of your most frequent recent behaviours.’ In other words, if you’re doing the right things, it will happen.

4) If you’ve had or have body issues or an eating disorder, always discuss options for tracking your progress and behaviours with your GP, counsellor or dietician in the first instance. They can help you to find a balanced approach that’s right for you.

Please do pop me a message or post on the balance Facebook page if you have questions about what you can do to track your progress, I’m always happy to help anyone find a little better balance.