1/20/17

Blogger shares her '6 reasons to ditch the scale'

stressed woman holding bathroom scaleBy Kiley Owen, PA-C

Wow, that girl looks pretty stressed. 

I want to tell her, "It's okay. ... Let's take a deep breath (dramatic inhalation and exhalation). Seriously, you look amazing. ... If you look and feel good, why should it matter what number is on the scale?" 

But I know why it matters.

It matters because we're told that a low number on the scale is good, and a high number is bad. We're taught that low = fit, and high = fat. That low = healthy, and high = unhealthy. 

While those can be accurate statements, they are not always true. This is why I'm not a fan of scales and why I don't own one.

Two things I should clarify ...

1) If you have a history of congestive heart failure or some other medical condition that causes fluid overload, a scale is necessary. In this case, it's important to weigh yourself regularly and talk to your healthcare provider if you notice excessive weight gain. 

But if you don't have a condition like this, and you just want to get in better shape, my advice is to put away the scale

2) I'm not saying you need to destroy the scale. Although, who knows? Some may find scale-wrecking to be a health-promoting activity, offering physical activity, stress relief and an enhanced sense of well-being.

Personally, I'd opt for a less-violent approach.

I'd suggest putting the scale somewhere inconvenient (like high in a closet), where you are not tempted to step on it repeatedly and let it dictate how you feel about yourself.

The key word here is repeatedly. Stepping on a scale every now and then is one thing. Obsessing over your weight is another. 

6 Reasons to Put Away the Scale

1. The scale only tells us part of the story.

It's kinda like my 5-year-old son, the morning he told me he already brushed his teeth, but what he meant was that he brushed his teeth last night. (We had to have a talk about omitting important details.)

The scale tells us one thing—a quantitative measure of weight. That's all. It doesn't give any more details. It doesn't tell us the quality of that weight. It doesn't tell us, for example:

  • Is the weight from fat?
  • Is it muscle?
  • Is it fluid?
  • Was the person holding a 20-pound purse? (I realize this is unlikely. Most of us would eagerly remove anything on us, even a Kleenex, in an attempt to help the number look better.)
  • Is the weight distributed on a person who is 4 feet tall or 6 feet tall?

Granted, for overweight Americans, the main culprit for high numbers on the scale is usually fat.

But we don't need a scale to tell us if we're carrying around extra fat. A mirror can tell us that, as can our clothes. 

It's important to remember that muscle is more dense than fat. It packs more weight into a smaller package, but it's firm, toned-looking weight. This picture illustrates this point nicely. Also, staying well-hydrated will add some weight. Both of these are healthy weight, though.  

2. A scale can take the wind out of your sails. 

woman on couch with bowl of chips and a magazineA scale can be quite discouraging if you weigh yourself too often. For example, you could be doing really well, exercising regularly, eating healthy and feeling great. Yet when you step on the scale, it might look as though you've made no progress. You might think, "What's the point? I might as well sit on the couch and eat chips, since it doesn't seem to make a difference anyway." 

Talk about frustrating ... . Who needs it, right?

On the other hand, you may slip into some bad habits, eat lots of junk and not exercise. Yet when you step on the scale, you may be pleasantly surprised. Again, you might think the "chips on the couch" plan is your best option. But this "weight loss" is likely from decreased muscle and dehydration, which are far from healthy, of course.

3. Skinny does not necessarily equal healthy.

I've met lots of unhealthy skinny people, and I've met lots of healthy people who happen to carry a little extra padding.

Let's consider two hypothetical patients:

  • Patient #1 is a 5'5" 160-pound woman. Her BMI (body mass index, a weight-to-height ratio) technically puts her into the "overweight" category. However, she is very active, she does not smoke, and she eats a healthy diet that is rich in nutritious whole foods. 
  • Patient #2 is a 5'5" 130-pound woman. Her BMI is in the "normal" category. However, she smokes cigarettes, she is inactive, and she eats mostly junk. 

As a health care provider, I would be much more concerned about the health of patient #2. She's at greater risk for many health problems. 

One more thing about patient #1 ... . If she lifts weights, her muscle mass could be contributing to her "overweight" classification. This is not uncommon for people who do a lot of strength training. (In these circumstances, the BMI system is not the best measure of health/fitness.) 

4. The scale puts too much focus on a "destination." 

When you decide to embark on a healthier way of life, I think it's important to enjoy each step of the journey. When we're too focused on a destination (achievement of a health goal, such as an ideal weight), we can fixate too much on the future and miss opportunities in the present.

We might put off important things (such as family pictures, a vacation or fun activities), in anticipation of a future time when we will be "better." Your number on the scale shouldn't affect how you live your life.

You don't need a perfect body to be active, to approach life with confidence, to chase your dreams or to have fun. Life is short. Play the part now! 

5. The scale focuses on physical appearance rather than feeling well.

Personally, my physical health improved most when I started focusing more on how I feel, rather than how I look. For example, I use exercise more for my mental health than anything else. To me exercise is an opportunity to get some fresh air, relieve stress and listen to something interesting on my headphones or just think and reflect.

The physical results come very gradually, with consistent and long-term effort. In the past, when the physical benefits were my sole reason for exercising and eating well, I would always get inpatient and give up.

These days I am keenly aware of how exercise and healthy eating allow me to feel better. Improved physical appearance just happens to be a nice byproduct.

6. There are more important numbers to focus on. 

the word smart spelled out in wood blocksI get it, sometimes it's nice to have an objective number to work toward. After all, many goal-setting strategies recommend this. An example is the well-known SMART approach, which encourages setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

If you want some specific, measurable numbers to focus on, try some of these:  

  • How many times did you show up to do the work (exercise)? How much did you do?
  • How many vegetables/fruits did you eat?
  • About how many calories did you consume? How many were empty calories (junk)? 
  • How many glasses of water did you drink?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how good do you feel?
  • How many good days have you had this month?

Bottom Line

Try not to get too hung up on the number on the scale. Focus instead on a healthy lifestyle, which will allow you to feel and look your best. 

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.