Why the scale doesn't budge... and what to measure instead.
** Content warning - I will begin this blog post discussing some of the reasons a person’s weight on a scale will either fluctuate or stagnate in regards to sleep, exercise, and elimination. I will conclude with other methods of measuring your physical health. Please skip to the second half of this post if discussing weight gain/ loss is upsetting to you.
My clients hire me as their trainer for many reasons, and weight loss is often one of them. I will encourage my clients to set achievable goals within a realistic timeline, and when we are working on weight loss via exercise, lifestyle, and nutrition, there are lots of other goals that they will also achieve along the way.
At some point during this process, there will often be moments when the scale simply doesn’t budge, or goes in the other direction. This can be part of the long-term process of healthy weight management and finding what works best for your individual needs. Naturally this can be really discouraging for my clients who are working hard to lose lbs, and here are some of the reasons behind this phenomenon!
Why The Scale Doesn’t Budge
1- Your Hydration Levels
Water weight is a thing, and it will add to what’s showing up on the scale. If you just drank a bunch of water or ate a bunch of water-containing foods, it will make you heavier. Don’t let this discourage you, you need water to live, and if you are staying hydrated, it will help your tissues and organs function properly.
Water is required to support your amniotic fluid levels and breastmilk supply, so I have my clients who are pregnant or breastfeeding take this into consideration. If you are breastfeeding and weighing yourself, I would recommend weighing yourself after a feed or a pump to get a more accurate number.
2- If you need to poop.
Going back to hydration, if you are constipated, you will also show higher numbers on a scale. Again, drinking water will help you eliminate, and increasing your fiber intake can help as well. Please consider this if you are struggling with postpartum, prenatal or stress-related constipation!
3- Time of day
If you weigh yourself first thing in the morning, after using the restroom (see above), you will likely get your most accurate read. Throughout, or at the end of the day, you will have consumed food and water and this will fluctuate this number. Many health metrics are most accurate first thing in the morning, and I’ll discuss some of my favorites later in this post!
4- If you are fatigued or stressed.
Sleep deprivation and stress are leading factors in weight gain and weight-loss prevention. Our bodies need rest to reset and allow our hormones to function properly. Many of my newly postpartum clients will struggle to lose weight until they are able to get consistent sleep. So if weight loss is a goal, you will need to address this first.
Lack of sleep and stress will accelerate our cortisol levels, which can reduce the hormones that tell us when we are not-hungry or full. Many of us tend to make up for these (and other feel-good hormones like dopamine or serotonin) by eating more calorie-dense foods. My postpartum nutrition course warned me of this. One way we can avoid the pattern of over-eating (especially foods like fast-sugars and low-nutrient, high-calorie carbohydrates) is by staying hydrated, increasing our proteins, fats, and fibers, and avoiding processed foods.
I don’t think this means you need to deprive yourself of delicious things or avoid sugar at all. Life is too short! However, if you are hoping to lose weight- stay hydrated, eat healthy fats and fiber sources, and make sure you’re getting enough protein before you reach for sweets!
5- If you've just worked out
Transient hypertrophy- or “muscle pump”, is when your muscles get bloated after a workout. When we exercise, particularly with strength training, our muscles tear. This causes a response that encourages blood flow to the affected area, and can increase your muscle size and mass during the repair process. The concept behind the “rip and repair” strategy is that when we break down musculoskeletal tissue with a heavy lift, the muscles will build back stronger, and increase in size and strength of the tissue. This can also build the neuromuscular connection and encourage things like muscle memory and tissue contractility. All good things, and this is one of the reasons why your jeans are tight after a spin class or you weigh more when you leave the gym than when you came in. (Especially if you did a great job staying hydrated during your workouts!)
6- You’re on your cycle
Yup, you probably already know this. If you are a female you will have a different weight during ovulation, heavy vs light flow days, etc. This all needs to be taken into consideration when tracking weight.
So, if you are trying to “lose weight”, how are you supposed to objectively track it?? Well, like most scientific things, we need to reduce the amount of confounding factors.
As I mentioned earlier, weighing yourself first thing in the morning after a good night or sleep and at a specific zone of your menstruation cycle. I recommend my clients who want to focus on weight loss metrics weigh themselves in the morning, first thing, after voiding/ using the restroom, and at a specific time in their menstruation cycle. (Exactly one week past the last bleed, for example, as this number can also change.) After a heavy-lifting week, we can expect the number to stay the same vs a lighter week of training.
I will not recommend having weight loss as a goal, however, while you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or recovering from childbirth, for obvious reasons.
I am extremely opposed to the idea that you should be expected to have a “belly only “ pregnancy or be back in your pre-pregnancy clothes within a certain timeframe. Pregnancy and birth is pretty traumatic to a body and it can take a loong time to recover from growing and delivering a human.
If you have older kids, however, it can be extremely liberating to have your body as your own again. Once I finished breastfeeding I was very excited to get back into my non-breastfeeding clothes and live my life larger than a 3 hour window from nursing or pumping. Rather than focus on weight loss, I prefer to use my body to run more miles, lift heavier weights, try more complicated Yoga poses, and try new things like stand up paddleboarding or free-climbing. If standing on a scale or using metrics in general feels triggering to you, I would encourage you to focus on these instead.
Tracking health metrics like lbs on a scale or what I'll discuss below can be helpful, but are not what defines your overall health, wellbeing, and your worth as a person!
What can you use instead? For body composition goals- ( ie the ratio of lean body mass to fat mass), I prefer that my clients use either waist circumference, waist to hip ratio, or body-fat percentage. These numbers will take longer to manipulate, and again, I wouldn’t suggest you use these while breastfeeding or pregnant. However, a consistent, monthly measurement can show results over time, and are less subjective than lbs on a scale.
Abdominal fat/ circumference and waist to hip ratio are far more indicative of overall health than just lbs or BMI. There is a correlation with waist circumference and waist to hip ratio with the indicators of disease and early death. (Sources waist to hip, waist to height.) Our abdominal fat is a major storage site of cortisol (stress hormone), so excess here is considered significant as it can indicate stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition.
For waist to hip ratio - measure the smallest part of your waist (right above your belly button) and the largest part of your hips (widest part of your butt). Divide your waist by hips to calculate. A .80 is considered low, .81-.85 is moderate, and anything above .86 can indicate you are at a higher risk for heart disease and metabolic symptoms etc. (For obvious reasons do not do this while you are pregnant, or newly postpartum, unless that’s your idea of a good time.)
I do have a machine that calculates body fat percentage by using an electrode with my clients using their age, weight, height. I do not recommend this for pregnant or breastfeeding clients because of a- electrode, and b- water intake. This is similar to what you would get from an in-water weight (considered to be the most accurate for bodyfat %) and less invasive than using skin-fold calipers (no one likes these).
For overall health and fitness tracking, and as your Trainer, I'd prefer to track your Blood Pressure (BP) and Resting Heart Rate (RHR).
BP : 120/80 is considered “normal” for blood pressure, but this number will be lower during pregnancy due to the increased stroke volume and additional blood flow.
You can check your blood pressure at the doctor’s office or at home. I would highly recommend investing in an at-home BP monitor if you are concerned at all about preeclampsia during your pregnancy or postpartum. If you have a monitor at home, please do this first thing in the morning or after being calmly seated for 3 minutes. Exercise can temporarily increase your blood pressure, so make sure you are properly cooled down before retesting post-workout.
RHR: First thing in the morning, before you get out of bed, check your RHR. Either use a fitness tracker or place your middle and forefingers against your neck or wrist and count every beat for 30 seconds, then double this number. Breathe calmly, and try not to move too much.
I encourage my clients to take an average over the course of one week. (If you’ve got little kids, skip this test if you have a rough night of sleep or less than 4 hours in a row and try again after a better night!) This number will also increase during pregnancy, after you drink coffee or consume food, cross your legs, walk around, etc. Which is why I advise my clients to put a note on their alarms and do it first thing in the morning.
This will vary in your life based on your stress, age, fitness level, and cycle. (Source- resting and target heart rate.) If you are overtraining or stressed out, your RHR will increase. If you are training properly, getting enough sleep, reducing your stress, staying hydrated/ properly nourished, and in good cardiovascular shape, this number will be lower than 60 and not fluctuate too much.
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, if you are working out too much or overtraining, or stressed, this number will go up. We can use this number for calculating a more accurate heart rate range during exercise, and set better goals for cardiovascular training.
(If you've read this far, give yourself a huge pat on the back! Thank you!)
Once more, with feeling, None of these numbers define you.
As someone who fluctuates regularly, I've got many different sizes in my closet, and this is fine! Our bodies are amazing and can do amazing things. Counting calories, stretch marks, or inches, isn't healthy and I'm sure you have much better things to do with your time on this planet.
Most of my clients are able to hit their weight loss goals, but for many of them, it's the process of finding the most optimal balance around exercise, nutrition, and sleep that bring them the most joy. It's in this creation of a healthy lifestyle that they feel stronger, less stressed, reduce any pain, eliminate medications, and more confident and capable in their bodies. These gains, in my opinion, are far more valuable than dropping a pant size.
Please reach out if you have any questions and if I can help you at all!