Tracking Your Weight Loss Progress Without the Scale

Most people go into the weight loss process, well, wanting to lose weight. However, if you're just getting started, the scale may be the worst choice for tracking your progress. In fact, your weight may be the least important thing you need to keep track of.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the scale is better at helping you maintain your weight than it is at helping you lose it. The reason? There are important changes happening in your body that the scale can’t measure or detect, such as:

  • Changing body composition: While your weight is important, what’s even more important is how much muscle you have. Muscle takes up less space than fat, making you look slimmer, and it’s more metabolically active. When you exercise, you gain muscle, raise your metabolism and lose fat, but that fat loss won’t always show up on the scale. Where it will show up is in measurements, how your clothes fit, and how your body looks. All that can happen even if the scale isn’t moving.
  • Changes on the inside: You may not know (or care) about what’s happening inside your cells when you exercise, but what’s going on in there can actually help you lose weight. Exercise teaches your body how to release more fat-burning molecules. The fitter you are, the more fat you burn and that is something the scale can't measure.
  • More strength and endurance: If you exercise regularly, you’ll be able to do more and more each time. You may start out exercising for a few minutes at a time or lifting light weights, but after a few workouts, your body adapts, allowing you to lift heavier and go longer. That strength and endurance means you’re making progress, but if the scale isn’t moving, you may not notice just how fit you’re actually getting.

Relying only on the scale can make workouts feel like a waste of time, even though each one helped you burn calories, get stronger, protect your body from diseases, and make you more fit than you were before.

Weight Loss: Beyond the Scale

Your weight is just one aspect of your progress and, in many cases, it's not even the most important one. Having your weight at a certain number might be nice, but the scale can’t tell you how fit you are or how much muscle you have. Your scale isn’t going to cheer for you when you finish all of your workouts for the week, either.

If weighing yourself motivates you in a positive way, there’s no reason to change what you’re doing. However, if the number on the scale makes you feel like a failure, it may be time to try something new like giving up the weight loss obsession, ditching the scale or measuring your body fat. Here's what you need to know about weight loss so you can meet your health and fitness goals.

Losing Weight Can Make Weight Loss Harder

Full Frame Shot Of Bathroom Scale
Clinton Freeman / EyeEm / Getty Images

What most people don't realize is that losing weight can actually make weight loss even harder. The more you weigh, the more energy your body expends to move that weight around. As you lose weight, your body will naturally expend fewer calories, something many people don't often account for in their daily calorie intake.

For example, if you're 5'8" and weigh 180 pounds, your basal metabolic rate (BMR) might be around 1,545 calories. If you lose 20 pounds, your BMR changes, dropping by 50 to 100 calories. That may not seem like much, but if you don't adjust your calories as you lose weight, you could end up at a frustrating plateau.

Weight Loss Plateau: How to Beat It

The only thing more frustrating than not losing weight is hitting a weight loss plateau after making steady progress. You're exercising, you're watching every single calorie, you're this close to your goal and then things come to a grinding halt. Beating a plateau is often more about making small changes to tweak what you're doing than going overboard with your diet or workout program. Here's how you do it.

Change Your Workouts

  • Add more cardio: Increasing the intensity of your cardio workouts, even if it's a short one, can be just that extra calorie-burn you need to get over the hump.
  • Lift heavier weights: Heavy weights help you build muscle, and muscle helps you burn fat. Try lifting enough weight that you can only complete 10-12 reps of each exercise.
  • Change your strength workouts: If you've been doing the same workouts for more than 4-6 weeks, even small changes can make a difference. Try different ways to progress like changing the type of resistance you're using, trying completely new exercises or splitting your workouts so you can spend more time on each muscle group.
  • Vary your intensity: You'll burn fat more efficiently if you workout at different intensities throughout the week. Try incorporating long, slow workouts alongside high-intensity interval training to hit all your energy systems in different ways.
  • Hire a trainer: If you're confused about what to do, a trainer can revamp your routine and help you do more with your exercise time.

Add More Activity

If you've maxed out on your workout time or you just don't want to commit to more training, adding more activity is a simple way to burn extra calories without overdoing it with exercise. A daily 20-minute walk can help you burn up to 100 extra calories.

Make Adjustments As You Go

You don't want to obsess over calories every time you lose a pound, but it can be helpful to periodically assess your progress along the way. When you lose 20 or more pounds, look at your diet and exercise program and make any necessary adjustments to reflect your new weight and level of fitness.

Tweak Your Calorie Intake

Even small changes to your diet can add up and help you move past a plateau. Try adding more fiber to your diet to help you stay fuller for longer and naturally reduce your calories without depriving yourself.

Weight Loss Calculators Aren't Always Accurate

Man on treadmill
David Sacks / Getty Images

It feels really good when the elliptical trainer tells you you've burned 500 calories after a 30-minute workout. The problem is, that number is likely overestimated. It doesn't take into account your current fitness level or how much muscle you have, two factors that can change how many calories you burn.

Keep in mind that weight loss calculators don't factor in the calories you would've burned if you weren't exercising, either. In fact, you still burn calories even when you're not exercising through a process known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). That means you should also subtract the calories you burn through NEAT to get a more accurate number.

Are Weight Loss Calculators Effective?

Many people rely on a variety of numbers when trying to lose weight. We get calculations on body fat percentage, basal metabolic rate (BMR), body mass index (BMI), calories burned during exercise, and target heart rate (THR), to name a few. These numbers can be helpful, but there are some drawbacks as well.

The formulas for these calculations are limited, which means they can only offer estimates, which could be off the mark and actually thwart your progress. Some calculations that aren't always accurate include:

  • Body mass index (BMI): The BMI formula uses weight and height to measure how healthy your weight is, but it doesn't take into account lean muscle mass, frame size, or sex, all things which can skew the numbers in the wrong direction.
  • Target heart rate (THR): Many THR formulas are based on an old maximum heart rate (MHR) equation (220 – age = MHR), which usually underestimates how hard you should actually be working.
  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR): There are different formulas used for calculating BMR, but some are inaccurate because they don't take into account activity levels or body composition. If you're very muscular, the calculator may underestimate how many calories you need. If you have more body fat, you might get a higher number than you really need.

Beyond the Numbers

Weight loss calculations can provide a jumping off point, but you don't want to become obsessed with those numbers, either. Here are a couple of alternatives to consider.

  • Find your own numbers: Rather than use a BMR calculator, figure out how many calories you're already eating. Keep a food journal or use an online tracking site to monitor your calories for a week or two. Once you have an idea of how many calories you're consuming, you can reduce that number to lose weight. For your target heart rate zone, use a calculator to get the baseline numbers and then adjust them by matching different heart rates to your rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
  • Rely on your own experience: Many people rely on calculations even if their own personal experience indicates otherwise. Don't be afraid to adjust things if you feel like you're not making progress. If your target heart rate feels too easy, change it until you're working at a higher intensity. If you're following a BMR calculation and you're not seeing results, try reducing that number by 50–100 calories to see if there's an improvement.

Weight Loss Doesn't Have to Be Your Primary Goal

Marathon Runners
vgajic / Getty Images

Many people spend a great deal of their time chasing a weight loss goal. For those who are fixated on reaching a certain number on the scale, success can seem out of reach. Sometimes your weight goes down, sometimes it goes up, and sometimes it remains the same. The scale may change because you ate more or because you worked out less, or because you're retaining water or you're possibly dehydrated.

Sometimes, forgetting about your weight entirely can actually help you lose weight. In fact, one study showed that people who were focused on health rather than weight ended up changing their behaviors in such a way that led to better weight management.

Beyond Weight Loss

What would it be like if you didn't worry about your weight anymore? What would you do for yourself if your goal was to, say, feel better every day or have more energy? Shifting your goal to something tangible, something you can see, feel and touch on a regular basis may be just what you need to get the results you're looking for. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Your health: Do you need to manage your stress a little better or get rid of chronic back pain? Maybe you want to feel more energetic or get more quality sleep every night. When you exercise to feel better, rather than look better, you're much more likely to stick with it, especially when you can actually feel the progress you're making.
  • Your performance: Why not focus on what you want to accomplish rather than what the scale is telling you? Maybe you want to be able to walk up the stairs at work without stopping to catch your breath, or maybe you'd like to work in the yard without hurting your back. Think of all the things you'd like to do better and set your goals accordingly.
  • Your satisfaction: When you finish a workout, you will likely feel better when you choose grilled chicken over a cheeseburger. Focus on how you feel when you make different choices throughout the day. Doing more of the things that make you feel good can make it easier to keep doing them day after day.

A Word From Verywell

The weight loss process is constantly changing and you have to change with it. To be successful and meet your goals, tweak what you're doing as soon as you realize that things aren't working. While the weight loss process might seem slow in the beginning, if you stick to your workouts and healthy eating habits, you will inevitably start to feel better, get stronger, and have more energy. And eventually, the number on the scale will start to reflect your best efforts.

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Article Sources
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