What's Your Ideal Weight?
Despite what many people think, weight is not the best measure of our health and appearance. This article explains why weight is a failed metric, why you should dispose of your scale, and what other methods you should be using to track your progress.
Is Your Scale Weighing You Down?
I learned the limitations of the scale firsthand when my weight began to fluctuate during and after college. For a couple of years, as I left competitive sports and tried to find a more standard gym routine, the scale and I had a tumultuous relationship. I didn't fully love my appearance at 130 lbs but I didn't like myself at 115 lbs, my lowest weight, that much more either. Neither extreme, and nothing in between, seemed to fit just right. This Goldilocks' dilemma, where we yo-yo from one weight to the next without finding satisfaction, is a slippery precipice that almost all people face at least once in their lives and that can trap some of us indefinitely. Upon reaching this point, the majority of people slide into the quagmire of "never skinny enough", which is a dark maze marked by low self esteem, shame, perpetual dieting, and the drain of impossible standards. Fortunately, something life changing happened that saved me from an unhealthy weight loss spiral. I met strength training and fell in love with it, thus ending my relationship with the scale forever.
I started spending more time with the barbell and less time thinking about my weight. As a lifelong athlete who missed the thrill and structure of competitive sports, I experienced fulfillment in learning about my body and what it could accomplish through lifting; I also found comfort in having a measurable workout program to follow daily. The result? My adventures into weight training distracted me from the scale long enough for me to regain all the weight that I had previously lost.
How could I regain that much weight without realizing it, especially when I had been keenly aware of my weight fluctuations in the years prior to that? I barely noticed the weight change because I was looking and feeling better than ever before. The new 130 lbs looked nothing like the old, and it felt worlds better than 115 lbs had. I was so thrilled with the changes, the number on the scale didn't hold power over me anymore.
How could gaining weight give me my best figure ever? For many people, gaining weight can be their darkest nightmare. For me, putting on the right type of weight was liberating and educating. I lost fat and gained muscle through a combination of healthy eating and weight training and the result was the trim, firm figure that I love. These changes taught me the limitations of the scale.
What makes weight such a limited metric? And why, if it paints such an incomplete and confusing picture, does it still rule most of our lives?
Tipping the Scales: Weight and Its Limitations
Our culture is obsessed with weight. We're taught from an early age to scrutinize our number. Our indoctrination into the worship of the scale begins when the Pediatrician weighs us and points to growth charts, comparing us to scores of unknown peers and preaching about pounds and percentages; but this is only the start. While growing up, we watch the adults closest to us agonize over their weight and bounce around from one fad diet to the next, we become accustomed to seeing scales in both public and private restrooms, we're influenced by the unhealthy relationship most people have with food, and we're bombarded with subliminal messaging- especially in the form of advertisements about losing weight and what we should look like. Before long, it seems like everyone is fighting with, or a slave to, the scale. In a control obsessed and comparison driven culture that's rife with a sense of scarcity and feelings of never being enough, it's no wonder the scale- with it's quick, crisp, measurable readouts- has a place of honor in our bathrooms and a crippling power over our identities.
The truth is that looking fabulous and being healthy is about being lean. Our weight can give us an inkling as to our overall health, but it really only does so when we're significantly overweight, at which point it's probably already obvious enough that we don't need a scale to prove it. More often than not during our wellness journeys, the scale only blurs our understanding and crushes our self image. There are two factors more important than our overall weight when measuring health and appearance, which the scale does not address:
- What constitutes the pounds we carry
- Where we carry those pounds
Fat vs. Muscle: Why It Matters
The scale is indiscriminate. It tells us how many total pounds we have, but it doesn't tell us how much of our weight is comprised of fat and how much of muscle. Why is this distinction important? For several reasons:
- Our body fat percentage (BF%) and how our weight is distributed- rather than our total weight or BMI- are far better indicators of our overall health
- Having a low body fat percentage with a lot of muscle leads to what our society lauds as a sexy figure
- Just as I experienced after college, we can make improvements in appearance and health that don't always translate into big decreases in our overall weight. Sometimes even the opposite can happen.
What's in Your Pounds? Not All Pounds Are Created Equal
Having less fat is certainly ideal when it comes to fitting into our favorite jeans and staying healthy. It's not the only factor that plays a role in how attractive we look, though. Having a low body fat percentage alone isn't enough to make us look great. Lean mass, in the form of muscle, helps give both men and women a sexier appearance. Even when we're lean, without muscle we would look shapeless. The key to looking our best is to minimize the pounds of fat we have while building and maintaining muscle. This creates the healthy, firm look that most of us idolize.
Here's a thought experiment to illuminate the limitations of the scale: imagine there are two men of equal age and similar height and that each weighs 200 lbs. Who is healthier and looks better? If you only know how much they weigh, can you realistically answer this question? Of course not. One of them could have significantly more fat than the other, while the latter could be shredded with muscle. I think we can all agree that the man with less body fat is probably in a healthier condition and looks better. Yet, you couldn't tell this just from knowing how much they weigh, because both men weigh the same amount.
If we can't reasonably evaluate the health and appearance of these two imagined individuals based on their weight, why do so many of us believe we can hinge our personal health decisions, fitness goals, life satisfaction, and self image on what the scale says (or on our BMI, which also doesn't distinguish between muscle and fat)? It's because most of us don't distinguish between our body compositions and weight.
Here's a second thought experiment to illustrate the difference between body composition and weight: take a look at the below image:
It provides an example why how our bodies hold fat and muscle differently. Which weighs more: the cheerios or the almonds? It may not look like it, but both weigh exactly the same. If they cheerios weight the same as the almonds, why do they take up so much extra space? Nuts are denser than cereal, so they take up less area per ounce. Just as cheerios and almonds have differing densities, so too do fat and muscle. Muscle weighs more per square inch than fat does, which means that fat takes up a lot more space than the equivalent weight of muscle. Unlike fat, which clings to our bones like a heaping mountain of cheerios, muscle is dense, firm, and shapely, like almonds.
The density discrepancy between muscle and fat is why I looked better at 130 lbs after adopting a strength training routine, than I did at 115 lbs; I shed fat while gaining lean pounds of shapely muscle, which made me look smaller and firmer. It's also why two individuals, both of similar height and weight, can look so drastically different. Scales are made to calculate weight, not density, which is why they can be so deceptive. Not all pounds are created equal, and the scale obscures this fact.
Where Do You Store Your Fat?
A final problem with the scale is that it doesn't tell us where our fat is stored. This has implications for both our health and appearance. Research has shown that not all kinds fat have the same effect on our health. Fat stored in our midsections (also known as visceral fat) is far more dangerous for our health than fat stored in our extremities. Similarly, when it comes to looking good, it's better to store fat in some places over others. For example, the fat found in a woman's breasts is viewed as attractive, whereas fat stored around the waist is not. As these examples demonstrate, our health and appearance don't boil down to merely how much we weigh, or even solely how much fat we have.
If Not the Scale, Then What?
For the sake of both our health and sanity, we need to use more comprehensive methods for measuring our well-being and attractiveness. No single metric tells us the whole story. The best approach combines several methods in order to tell us how much fat we have, how many pounds of muscle we carry, and where our weight is distributed. The metrics we should be focusing on are:
- Lean mass
- Girth measurements
Unfortunately, these metrics are hard to track at home. There are scales that claim to measure BF% and lean mass, but few of these are reliable and accurate. The best thing to do is to enlist the help of a professional who can take these measurements for you and help you interpret and use the information to your benefit.
We give a lot of weight to a metric that doesn't provide us with a lot of information. The scale should be banished from bathrooms everywhere because it provides an incomplete and often inaccurate picture of our wellness and appearance, which derails our progress and hurts our psyches. Instead, we should rely on the help of a qualified health or fitness professional to assess our body composition and provide us with direction for our health and fitness routines.
Want to learn more about your body metrics? Modern Might can help you divorce your scale, permanently. Contact us today for a complimentary assessment, so that we can help you better understand your body and show you how to get the results you've been looking for. Freeing yourself from the scale will take a huge weight off your shoulders in more ways than one.