Don’t Sweat the Demon Scale

It’s time to renegotiate the terms of your relationship with the demon on your bathroom floor.

There are a whole lot of people who struggle with anxiety about stepping on the scale. It could come as a bit of dread or panic at a doctor’s visit or for the weigh-in for a meet. These principles don’t just apply to weight loss, either, and they’re useful for anyone who experiences anxiety around their measures of fitness success. But this article comes with some terms and conditions:

There are a whole lot of people who struggle with anxiety about stepping on the scale. It could come as a bit of dread or panic at a doctor’s visit or for the weigh-in for a meet. These principles don’t just apply to weight loss, either, and they’re useful for anyone who experiences anxiety around their measures of fitness success. But this article comes with some terms and conditions:

  • If you want to stop stressing out over the tools that help you get to your goals, read on.
  • If, as you read this, you feel the urge to skip your next meal, stop reading.
  • If you feel sudden awareness of and shame over your body shape, whatever it is, stop reading.
  • If you feel the sudden urge to go out and dramatically change your diet and behavior, to ‘fix yourself,’ stop reading.

Eating disorders are serious, and they go well beyond the scope of this article. If you feel compelled to binge eat, purge, starve, or otherwise hurt yourself for any reason, I urge you to call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or see a professional.

The Demon in the Bathroom

Let’s face it: scales suck. And not just because they bring you unwelcome news.

Common household scales aren’t that accurate, often showing pounds of difference from one scale to another. Even when they’re accurate, they measure one precise thing: the amount of mass gravity is pulling down onto the scale’s surface. Even fancy bioimpedance scales are pretty terrible.

On top of that, our culture has loaded the scale with destructive messages. Cartoons show bloated caricatures breaking the scale with cautious steps. Fitness magazines show models standing triumphantly on their scales, measuring tape loosely draped around their obviously-lean waist. If that number doesn’t read what it should (whatever that is), our social messages push you to change:

“You’re not okay. You don’t measure up. You need to be the way we want you, or you’re a failure. Buy my pill to ‘fix’ you.”

This messaging is killing people. Anorexics are almost five times as likely to die in a given time frame than the general population, and bulimics have a 70% greater risk, not counting the variety of other disorders. Although it’s not the only cause, negative self-image and stigma plays a part in causing these disorders. And for many people, the scale features prominently in their history of attempts—and failures—at weight loss.

Just Break It

Can we get rid of the scale altogether? Should we? There was a brief explosion of national attention toward “Smash the Scale” events in 2013, and some health professionals have made careers out of demonizing the scale and diets in general, so people are definitely asking the question.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Although it is a complex issue, obesity is still harmful in the long term. Fad diets are harmful, certainly, and there is good evidence that fad diets and constant weight shifting are worse than obesity, but it is possible to change your eating habits in a healthy way. With rare exceptions, you are not doomed to your current body.

I have nothing against scale-smashing parties since for many, they aren’t really about the scale. It’s symbolic of the internal work the smasher has put in trying to break down their own feelings of low self-worth and anxiety. However, after the scale is annihilated in a shower of springs and twisted plastic, cold, objective reality is still waiting. We’re still the same weight. We still see ourselves in the mirror and in the eyes of those around us. We’re still at a higher risk for a variety of diseases and early death, and many us still want to do something about it.

What if we could build a healthy relationship with the tools that inform us of the facts of life, instead of ignore those facts? What would that relationship look like?

None of these steps say “panic.”

4DX: Common Sense, Uncommon Execution

For perspective, the scale is not the only measure of performance we stress out over. It could be the weight on the barbell, our race time, or quarterly sales figures. Any measure of success could be a useful tool to drive effective decisions—or the path to becoming an anxious wreck.

The ‘wrong’ way is a trap that’s easy to fall into. Picture this: you’re assigned a goal and given a deadline to achieve it. In the case of losing body fat, maybe it’s your next doctor’s visit. You do something, you put in effort, but you get caught up in the whirlwind of life, and halfway to the deadline, you step on the scale. No change. Now you’re sweating a little bit. You start measuring every week, then every day, thinking that by keeping it in your attention, you’ll remember to do “the right things,” but the act of keeping it in your attention feels like staring down an oncoming train, and you begin to dread stepping on the scale each day. Your habits falter, your stress rises, and you’re nowhere closer to your goal. Bad juju.

Don't Sweat the Demon Scale

In The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX), a highly successful program for solving the question of ‘how to get shit done,’ the authors describe this as a ‘lag measure’ problem. ‘Lag measures’ are measures of things as they are: scale weight, a waist measurement, a body fat percentage, you name it. The problem is that while you’re taking the measurement, there’s nothing you can do about it. The behaviors and circumstances that got you there are already in the past.

A more positive approach involves a change of mindset. Instead of looking for what the scale says about you, start thinking about the scale as the answer to certain questions:

  • Is your plan working?
  • Do you need to change that plan?
  • How quickly are you getting to your goal?

You: The Science Experiment

Every time you try to change your habits, you’re essentially making a bet:

  • “If I do X, I bet Y will happen.”
  • “If I only eat only ‘clean’ foods, my WOD times will improve.”
  • “If I cut 15g of carbohydrate and 5g of fat per day, I will continue to lose 1lb a week.”
  • “If I cut my soda intake from 10 to 3 and go for a 1 mile walk a day, my waist will get smaller.”

Change, then, is like a science experiment. You mix several chemicals together and check the result. Each weigh-in is that check, and as long as you actually followed through on the bet and stuck to the plan, any result, ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ is useful! Even if you don’t lose weight, you now know that change didn’t work. When you really buy in to this approach, the scale isn’t even measuring you at all. It’s a given that it it tells you nothing about your beauty, value, or success, but I’d argue that it’s not even really about your weight. The scale measures the success of a changed variable, a change you chose to make, and that process can be discarded or replaced in favor of a newer, better process that will bring you closer to your goals.

Indirectly, it can even provide useful information if you don’t stick to the plan. Between ‘big’ measurements (usually 1 week for the scale), life sometimes gets in the way and you break from the plan. Shit happens, everyone moves on. However, if you take multiple measurements in a row and something always gets in the way, life is trying to tell you something: the plan is not appropriate right now. And that’s okay. You’re not pinned down to a specific diet, and no plan will be successful if you can’t do it. Look at the available options, reassess your resources (including knowledge, time, and social support), and either adjust the program or ditch it for a plan that’s right for you.

Moving Forward: The Lead Measure

In 4DX, the authors push the importance of shifting your day-to-day thoughts from outcomes (‘lag’ measures) to processes (‘lead’ measures). If the lag measure is the Y in our bet above, the lead is the X: “What do I need to do in order to make Y happen?” From there, each decision begins to make sense:

If you didn’t follow the plan and it worked, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but don’t get cocky either. For an example, let’s say you started tracking macros and didn’t hit your targets, yet you measure 1 pound lighter the following week. Maybe the act of measuring itself inspired small changes in what you ate. Maybe you were retaining less water. Maybe Mercury was in retrograde. Who knows? Not you, and that’s the problem. Following the plan more closely will give you a useful metric to compare.

If you followed the plan and it worked, keep doing it. You might make small tweaks or adjustments to keep things moving along or to make the plan easier to follow in the next cycle, but don’t overcomplicate things. If it works, it works.

If you didn’t follow the plan and you don’t see results, first decide if you can follow the plan. The question here is not whether or not you could follow the plan under different circumstances. The question is whether we can do the plan right now. It doesn’t have to be sustainable forever: sometimes, the ‘hard routine’ is required for a while before we can settle into a sustainable ‘maintenance’ routine. All that matters is that we consistently have the available resources to get it done for as long as we need to. If you can’t follow the plan, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Can the plan be adjusted or scaled down until it’s more doable? Do you need to switch plans entirely? This is where a coach or advisor might help in making an effective switch.

This same problem occurs when you follow the plan diligently and it still doesn’t work. I usually recommend holding on for two measuring cycles (often two weeks, for a diet) to establish a trend, but if metrics don’t move in the right way after two cycles, you have to make a change to see success, and picking the right ‘new bet’ may take outside help. Still, you’ve made great forward steps:

  • You developed habits toward following a diet and committing to your health.
  • You now have information about what you eat and what hasn’t worked.
  • You have a starting template you might choose to branch out from, instead of having to start from scratch.

It’s About the Trend

The third point of our healthy mindset is that the individual day’s measurement is irrelevant: only the trend counts. This is especially true in measuring tools like the scale, which have a pretty wide margin of error.

body weight trend line

This is a graph of measurements for a three-month diet, a month of maintenance, and slow (intentional) regain I went through in 2016. Note the occasionally daily drops and peaks of 4+ pounds. This is not uncommon in my trainees, and these changes can be even greater for some. There are many reasons for this.

  • Eat a salty or very carb-heavy meal at night and you’ll retain more water during a morning reading.
  • Food sitting in the digestive system makes night measurements heavier than day measurements.
  • A full trip to the bathroom can drop half a pound.
  • Some medications and supplements cause greater water retention and scale-weight gain.
  • Sometimes, magical things happen in the gut and you’re just heavier one day than the next.

In other words, don’t sweat it. Putting too much emphasis on today’s measurement can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially when we’ve falsely tied our self-worth into the numbers on the scale. If possible, the solution here is to focus on the trend:

  • If you can, take multiple measurements a week and graph them out. Most diet apps make this possible, or just a spreadsheet. This will allow you to see trends and get perspective.
  • If you take the above approach, make diet decisions based off the same point each week.
  • Include a set point before a change ‘counts.’ This frees you from the highs of lows of constantly ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the face of random variation. In my own cutting phase, I didn’t mentally ‘count’ a new weight until every measurement for 5 days was under that value. It was still moving the way I wanted, but by the time I ‘accepted’ it, the new weight was no big deal since I’d been there for a week or more.

Beware the Red Squares

A healthy scale relationship is about decisions, so I used the decision tree above to show it. But if you read it, you probably noticed a few red squares. These are points where things can often go sideways, bringing on stress, anxiety, and worse.

First, if you are trying to change weight and have no plan, stop measuring until you do. If you don’t have a plan that you can apply those scale measurements to in order to make future decisions, no good comes from measuring. There is an addictive quality to the scale. When it reads closer to what we want, we get a little positive-feelz hit of success. When it reads worse, it validates our toxic model of ourselves as failures. Either way, we feed an emotional need. Unfortunately, like a parched desert traveler stumbling on a well, we may not realize the water is poisoned until it’s too late.

Second, it is possible to poison this well from the very start. What does it mean for the plan to ‘work?’ Why did we select the goal we did? The answers here aren’t always good. Sometimes, we can get to them through reflection and inner work. Sometimes we need professional help to get to the heart of it. Either way, a critical look at our motives is essential.

Finally, one thing I think we’ve all dealt with is the endless struggle. Every week, something comes up and the dieter can’t follow their program, and they stress over it. But they’ll get it next week, they promise! Another variation of this is the diet-hopper, switching from one diet to another and another until they find one that ‘works.’ Both approaches are rarely effective. Why keep up the pretense and stress of dieting without any sign of success after months and years of hammering our heads into the wall?

This may be the sign of a medical condition that needs treatment, but often, it’s a case of chasing two rabbits. We want the moral satisfaction and reward of trying, but we either lack the resources to actually make the change, or have conflicting desires, some of them unconscious, over our current body and lifestyle. If you’ve been dieting for months on end with no result, it may be time to get those outside resources—admit you need help to win the war—or look into whether it’s worth it to you to make the change. It may not be. And that’s okay.

Failure Is Just a Data Point

Whenever we start talking about scale anxiety, disordered eating, or anything in that hairy space, you can always expect some internet troll to come out, chin held high, “Why don’t you just do it? Do more, eat less, right? The scale’s just a fact. You can’t be afraid of reality!”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. If you can’t understand, I can almost guarantee you’ve faced a similar situation in your past. For me, it was the Physical Strength Test (PST), an introductory test for those who want to be US Navy SEALs. It includes a swim, run, pull ups, push ups, and sit ups. I trained hard for it. I was a great runner, fit, and a decent swimmer, but decent was not good enough to get selected. Between my swim time and my strength deficit (I was 160 pounds at the time and struggled with ruck work, among other things), I wasn’t selected, and I had to fight the uphill battle for a lateral transfer from the fleet.

I did a PST every month, and although my scores were getting better, every attempt felt like a defeat. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t working hard enough. Late hours on ship and a busy family life meant I couldn’t train and would never get better, or so I worried. Occasionally I’d swim five seconds slower than the previous month, and the whole month prior would feel like a waste. I started dreading the PST and every training session in the pool. I started finding reasons to substitute swim days for runs or the obstacle course, things I was good at. One day, I had to sit with the realization that I’d failed. I had the resources, the skill, and the talent to get the work done, and I’d sabotaged myself.

It’s easy to look in hindsight and see it now, just as it can be easy to look at someone else who’s suffering through it and fail to understand why they can’t see the ‘obvious.’ No one has the right to judge anyone in this game, and even if you did somehow have perfect mastery of your feelings and goals, your judgment won’t help anyone. Respect everyone, wherever they are on their journey, and strive to do your best to develop a healthy relationship with the tools you need to win. It’s the best any of us can do.

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