HOW TO MEASURE YOUR PROGRESS IN 2019
Here we are now, a few weeks into 2019. Hopefully you’re making some sustainable, positive health and lifestyle changes…if that’s your jam of course. In this blog post I want to discuss how you might go about measuring your progress, be it for weight loss or perhaps muscle gain or maybe improving health.
THE WEIGHING SCALES
A lot of you reading this are no doubt familiar with the weighing scales and many of us unfortunately have quite a negative relationship with it. We can literally let a number on a screen dictate how we feel about ourselves that day – that ain’t right. If you choose to use weight on the scales to help you track your progress (and I’ll discuss how best to do this below) then it should be giving you objective feedback. You’re the same person you were five seconds before you stepped up on the scales as you are five seconds after stepping off it. Remember that. There are several issues with using the scales as a gauge of progress, on its own that is.
1) The scales doesn’t tell the whole story
What if you’ve just started an exercise program for the first time or after a long layoff? You could well be building some muscle at a nice rate as well as losing some body fat. If you gain 0.5kg of muscle mass and lose 0.5kg of body fat you’re going to be the same weight right? Yet your body composition (the ratio of fat vs non-fat tissue in the body) will be much much better. Honestly this isn’t likely to occur for someone who doesn’t fit into that sort of newbie category but these are also the people who are least likely to know this can occur.
2) The scales can be crazy erratic in how much it fluctuates on a daily basis
If you ever get into the habit of weighing yourself every day you’ll see this. The scales weight can literally go up and down and up and down and there are many good reasons for this. If you don’t know about these reasons however you might be pulling your hair out wondering WTF is going on!? Because the scales doesn’t differentiate between ‘types’ of weight obviously, one of the main things to influence it’s fluctuations is water weight and water retention. Some examples are:
Increased carbohydrate intake – the storage form of carbohydrates called ‘glycogen’ takes with it 3-4 grams of water when it gets stored in your muscles and liver. So if your glycogen stores aren’t full all of the time – which is likely if you’re dieting and training but you go and have an unusually high carb day and you fill those stores right up then you can appear a lot heavier on the scales. The amount of difference this can make will depend on the size of the person but it could certainly account for 1-2 kg or so.
Increased sodium intake – eating a lot more sodium/salt than usual in a meal can increase water retention in the body.
Stress & cortisol – elevated stress levels of any sort will increase cortisol production in the body which can also cause increased water retention and a ‘masking’ of fat-loss efforts. What do people do here then if they see they’re not losing weight? They eat less and train more, maybe they start to use more stimulants to compensate for the lack of energy from this, maybe their sleep suffers then too as a result – all of this increases their stress and just makes the issue even worse. That’s why stress management is so important when it comes to making progress.
Menstrual cycle in women – in normally cycling women you can experience increases in water retention due to the hormonal changes throughout the month. You’ll see the worst of this in the fourth week of the cycle where you get PMS going on but it can also occur to a lesser extent in the second week too. The first week of the cycle just after you get your period is when you’ll be lightest and represents your ‘truest’ weight. These changes can easily account for increases of 1-3kg of scale weight.
Imagine this scenario then. You go out for a meal on a Friday night, you eat more carbs than usual and more salt because restaurant foods tend to be higher in salt and carbohydrates to make them tastier. Imagine also you’re a woman and your period is coming up in a few days and the next morning the increased PMS water retention is going to be apparent. That situation is almost a perfect storm for gaining a tonne of water weight. If you don’t know about all these factors you might step on the scales the next day – see you’ve gained 3kg and freak out, thinking you completely fucked your diet somehow from that one meal out – which leads you to take action by dieting and training harder next week but that’s not the case – you did nothing wrong you just experienced some temporary gain in water weight.
3) How to use the scales
Okay so how do we use the scales to minimise the amount of angst around it and to make sure it’s giving us a clear picture of progress? Two options. i) You weigh yourself very frequently under the same conditions e.g first thing in the morning after you go to the bathroom, every day. ii) very infrequently e.g once every 2-4 weeks. Anything in between that is just too unreliable and you risk comparing a ‘light’ day in week 1 to a ‘heavy’ day in week 2 and thinking you’re going wrong somewhere which might not be the case at all. With these options then – weigh yourself each day for the week, get the average weight for that week and then compare that average to the last week you recorded e.g last week or the one week last month you recorded. And ideally you won’t only use the scales as a measurement of progress.
4) How much weight to lose/gain?
This can vary a bit but on average about 0.5-1% of your bodyweight per week to lose is a good shout. If you have a lot of weight to lose you could maybe push that up to 2%. This is better than looking at in terms of just a certain amount of weight each week because losing 1kg per week for someone who is 65kg is going to be a lot more significant than for someone who is 120kg. So for someone 120kg, 0.5-2% of your body weight is 120 x 0.005 to 120 x 0.02 = 0.6kg to 2.4kg per week.
For weight gain in terms of muscle mass (this doesn’t include people who are very underweight) then for male beginners to weight training you could be looking at gaining 1-1.5% of your body weight per month. For intermediate trainees (1+ year of proper training) you could be looking at 0.5-1% per month and for advanced trainees (3+ proper years of training) only about 0.25-0.5%. For females these rates are about half. So before you think that gaining a kg per week because you’re ‘bulking’ is productive – do the math here, bro.
Remember these are just average numbers though – as an individual you might be to the left or right of that average number.
USING BODY MEASUREMENTS
Another good way to measure progress here is to use a tailor’s measure (soft measuring tape) and keep track of your measurements. This can be useful because it will show changes in body composition that the scales won’t. If certain areas are shrinking/growing on a regular basis then you can be fairly sure you’re on the right track. I don’t have exact numbers here to look out for but as with weight loss the more you have to lose the bigger drops you’ll likely see in measurements. I would suggest measuring several body parts i.e. not just waist because it won’t necessarily all come off there each week right? Things like waist, hips, thighs, chest, upper arm, neck are all good. Get the total of all of these and then see how that total changes week to week or month to month. These measurements can be taken on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis but no more frequently than that. And remember that muscle gain is much slower than fat loss so in this case I would suggest monthly measurements at the most.
USING PROGRESS PHOTOS
Photos are awesome because they don’t lie and you’ll really see the standout changes if they’re there! The only thing with photos is that it takes some time for the changes to become apparent so for these every 2,4 or even 6 weeks is enough in terms of frequency. Try keep it to the same conditions of course. Lighting, time of day etc.
This is another great one that won’t lead you astray like some of the others can. If you have a specific piece of clothing you can use to gauge your progress this works really well. Be it a dress, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, whatever – it can be a really motivating one if say you’re not seeing as significant changes in weight or measurements (though you would expect these two to go hand in hand). I really like this one because you can FEEL it.
HOW YOU FEEL
This is probably my favourite one. It’s very subjective sure but it’s arguably the most important – what’s the point in losing weight if it doesn’t help you feel more fantastic or improve your health and quality of life? Things to keep an eye out for here are – improvements in your energy levels, sleep quality, mood, training performance, digestion, bowel movements and so on. These one’s you’ll feel for sure and it feels great! This and to look better naked is what we’re after at the end of the day so set yourself up to track some of these ones too! Give yourself a rating/10 for each point on a weekly basis and see how it’s shifting for the better. There are also ‘hard’ measurements of your health improving too which could be things like your cholesterol levels lowering for example that can be determined by blood tests.
SCANS, CALLIPERS & BOD PODS
Lastly there are a whole host of fancy (and not so fancy) tests you can do to help determine how you’re progressing. Things like DEXA scans, skin fold calliper tests, fancy weighing scales that give you feedback on body composition and other sorts of body scanners.
My take on these is that they’re fine but the ones that are actually quite accessible for most people shouldn’t be taken at face value. For example when it comes to calliper testing performed in many gyms if you’re told that “hey you’re 12% body fat great job” does that absolute number really matter? Like would you rather look and feel fantastic or be an arbitrary body fat percentage that may or may not be accurate? These can be a nice way to compare progress – “oh I’ve lost 1% body fat since last time” rather than taking the absolute numbers to mean much – “oh I’m 12% body fat , cool”.
Also with most of these they’re not well supported to be accurate and/or can be cheated. Even a DEXA scan which is pretty high level and going to be very inaccessible for most people can be ‘cheated’ in terms of measures of lean body mass by manipulating carbohydrate and water intake. So while these can be handy additions to tracking progress don’t let them be the be all and end all.
ARE YOUR HABITS IMPROVING?
All of the above are measures of progress ‘outcomes’ when in fact for a lot of people what’s going to create that change in outcome is going to be changes in behaviours. The things you do on a daily basis that create that desired outcome. Eating right, sleeping well, getting your workouts in, managing your stress. All of that stuff is what really matters here and they can be tracked too. You ate 30 servings of veg last week but you ate 35 servings this week? Awesome – that’s a major improvement right. Last week you slept only 6hrs per night but this week you got a couple of nights of 8hrs? Brilliant! Run with that and see can you build on it. All these little things will accumulate and can help keep you motivated when you can see you’re doing a little bit better each week and if you do that then you can almost assume that you’ll see changes in the other progress markers discussed above!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To summarise then. There are many ways you can track or measure your progress this year. My advice is to pick a few of the above (but not necessarily all of them) so that you can have multiple gauges to reflect on each week or month. If all you’ve picked is weight changes well now I hope you can see why that could be problematic or unreliable for informing your future decisions or representing how well what you’re doing is working. Pick a few and use them the ways I’ve described above and you’ll be on the right track!
By Brian Ó hÁonghusa, BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition, ANutr, PN1, PN2