For years, many experts recommended tossing your scale. Good advice when you consider the emotional whiplash that weighing yourself can cause. As the number goes down, your confidence goes up, but a gain of even a pound can easily ruin your day.
It's time to end the love-hate relationship with your scale. A review of a dozen studies tracking over 16,000 dieters provides indisputable evidence that the bathroom scale is one of the most effective tools for losing weight and preventing pounds from creeping on. A whopping 75% of members of the National Weight Control Registry—men and women who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off—weigh themselves at least once a week.
Here are five surprising facts that will help you make peace with your scale—and use it to your weight loss advantage.
Surprise No. 1: The more you weigh yourself, the more you lose
Out of sight, out of mind simply doesn't work. In one study, daily weighers dropped twice as many pounds as weekly weighers—12 pounds versus 6, possibly because it was a regular reminder to stay on track. Meanwhile, dieters who avoided the scale altogether gained 4 pounds. And despite the common belief that focusing on weight makes women feel bad about themselves, scientists have found that tracking your weight can actually improve your mood by giving you a sense of control.
TIP: Weigh yourself daily (more than that isn't really meaningful).
Surprise No. 2: A cheaper model is better
You can spend hundreds on a high-tech scale that also estimates your body fat percentage and more through a series of mathematical algorithms, but you're just getting another number to worry about that's possibly less accurate than your weight. "I avoid scales that measure body fat, because there are so many inaccuracies based on fluctuations in how much water you drink," says exercise physiologist Kara Mohr, PhD, who's done extensive scientific research on weight loss.
TIP: Buy a basic digital scale that displays weight to the nearest ½ or 2/10 pound to minimize fluctuations.
Surprise No. 3: Weight can fluctuate 5 pounds in 24 hours
The biggest culprit is water (and water in the food you eat). The calories in a liter of soda would add about 1/10 pound if you didn't burn them off, but step on the scale immediately after drinking it and you'll be up more than 2 pounds; go to the bathroom and you'll likely drop 1 to 1½ pounds. You even lose water weight—about 2 pounds a day—just by breathing and sweating. Day-to-day fluctuations can be the result of a high sodium meal or your level of hydration, while your menstrual cycle can cause changes all month long.
"It's important to keep the bigger picture in mind," says Mohr. No one meal or single splurge will move the scale's needle in a lasting way unless it becomes a habit. However, a difference of 100 calories at every meal could add up to more than 30 pounds in a year—in either direction.
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TIP: Weigh yourself at the same time each day, first thing in the morning after using the bathroom and getting undressed, to avoid factors like water weight and clothing. Track your results, and focus on the pattern over time. The number may go up and down from one day to the next, but the overall direction month to month should be down if you're trying to lose weight. If you see an upward trend, it's time to take action.
Surprise No. 4: You can lose inches without weighing less
In a recent study from the University of California at Berkeley, women in their mid-50s followed a 12-week cycling routine while eating a diet designed to maintain their weight. The result: One 56-year-old lost just 1 pound but dropped two sizes, thanks to a 7% decrease in body fat. She replaced about 4 pounds of fat with 4 pounds of muscle—pound for pound, muscle is firmer and denser, and it takes up about one-third the space of fat. But don't assume your scale is stuck due to new muscle. It takes about a month of strength-training to add a single pound of muscle, on average, according to Wayne Westcott, PhD, author of Get Stronger, Feel Younger.
TIP: Track other markers such as the size of your waist and thighs (using a tape measure), how your clothes fit, or how much energy you have—and celebrate those successes.
Surprise No. 5: Where you put your scale matters
In most cases, your bathroom floor will work just fine, but if the floor is textured or the grout creates an uneven surface, the readout might be off. Bath mats or carpet of any thickness can absorb some of your weight, throwing off the scale's sensors and decreasing your weight by 20 pounds or more, explains Keith Erickson, company spokesperson for Tanita scales. Some higher-end scales come with carpet feet to accommodate the inconsistencies, but our tester still found a several-pound discrepancy.
TIP: Weigh yourself in the same spot every day.