Scale wars: It's time for a peace pact


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 10:11 p.m.

Step on. Look at the number. Step off.

Would that using a scale could be so simple. But as anyone trying to lose — or even maintain — weight knows, the relationship with the bathroom scale is tenuous at best. We're best friends when it seems to overlook that extra piece of fruitcake from the night before, but woe to the scale that ignores our rigorous workouts and saintlike holiday party willpower. Out with the garbage it goes.

With New Year's resolutions about to come due, it's time to make peace with the scale. Use it as a way to track yourself and keep yourself honest, says Emily Vig, a clinical dietitian at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Here are some guidelines:

STEP ONE: Be loyal.

Don't scale-hop in the hope of finding a better number. Resist the temptation to step on the scale at your friend's house to see if you've lost weight on the way over. And definitely do not fall victim to the "Guess Your Weight, Win a Prize" tent at the carnival.

Stick with the scale you always use. Ideally, you should be the only one who uses it.

David Vandeven, a personal trainer at the South County YMCA and former bodybuilder, advises against using the scale at the gym. These are typically beam scales, the kind you'd find at the doctor's office.

Although this model is probably the most accurate, Vandeven says, dozens of people use the gym scale every day, so you can't be sure if it's calibrated correctly. If the beam isn't set back to zero each time, the scale becomes less precise.

Vig says that whether your home scale is an old-fashioned analog or a digital scale with a lot of bells and whistles, "if you're using the same scale, seeing changes in weight on that one scale is what's important."

STEP TWO: Be consistent.

Just as you should use the same scale for every weigh-in, you should weigh yourself under similar conditions. Weighing yourself once in a parka and the next time in the buff does not represent weight loss. Neither does weighing yourself after you've come out of the steam room.

Your weight changes during the day based on what you've eaten and whether you've just exercised, Vig says. To be most consistent, choose a day to weigh in and do it first thing in the morning, when you have the least amount of food in your system. Wear similar clothes, and keep your shoes off.

To be most accurate, a scale should sit on a hard surface, not carpet, and should be moved as little as possible.

STEP THREE: Expect fluctuations.

Your scale is not silently mocking you by jumping up three pounds in 24 hours. Likewise, don't celebrate what seems like a sudden weight loss with a trip to a frozen-custard shop.

What you're looking for, Vig says, is "a general trend toward weight loss or weight gain."

Daily ups and downs are tough on the ego. That's why most people should not weigh themselves every day. Vandeven and Vig both recommend weighing in just once a week, and, in the spirit of consistency, on the same day each week.

STEP FOUR: Use other measurements.

Although you shouldn't be promiscuous with your scale use, there are plenty of other ways to track your size and fitness level.

"It's more important to own a mirror than a scale," Vandeven says. In other words, if you look fit, you probably are, regardless of your weight.

See how you feel in your clothes, Vig recommends. Muscle weighs more than fat but takes up less space, so a muscular person may weigh more but could fit into a smaller size than a couch potato.

Many scales now come with a function that measures body-fat percentage.

These use a technique called bioelectrical impedance, which measures how well a weak electrical current is conducted in the body. The current flows better if there's more water in the body. Muscle has a high water content; fat does not.

Vandeven says this method works best if used when you are at a "dry weight," meaning you're not dehydrated from working out and you're not retaining water.

If you're frustrated by your scale's lack of cooperation in your fitness efforts, give it a rest for a while. But don't give up on it entirely.

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