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Signs of Progress, sans the Scale

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

How long would you be willing to do something that promises health benefits down the road if you weren’t able to see progress along the way? Seeing measurable progress, even if it’s small, can help to motivate people to stay on their exercise program, continue following their nutrition plan or continue to make changes to their lifestyle. Research has shown that stepping on the scale on a daily basis has a positive effect on motivation in weight management. That said, it’s important to remember that body weight can fluctuate, even daily, based on a number of factors, such as hydration, foods consumed and hormones.

There are several other ways of tracking progress — methods that perhaps provide even better indicators of success. We’ll take a look at a few ways you can chart your progress and stay motivated, even if the scale doesn’t always show you what you’re hoping to see.

Measuring Aesthetic Progress

For some, weight loss success is all about what’s reflected in the mirror. However, when people focus only on losing body weight, there’s no way to tell whether the weight loss is coming from muscle tissue or body fat. Without the right nutrition and exercise program, it’s possible for people to lose muscle tissue as fast, or faster, than they lose body fat. That’s why it’s important to measure body composition, or body fat percentage, as well as body weight.

There are several methods of measuring body composition, including bioelectrical impedance, DEXA scans, underwater weighing and infrared, but the most common are simple 3-site or 7-site skinfold body composition assessments. Each method has pros and cons, but the ease of skinfold measures makes this a favorite among fitness professionals. Like other methods, skinfold measures have a certain margin of error. As long as you have the same person perform the assessment each time, the amount of error should be consistent. What you’re looking for is the change over time, not necessarily a perfectly accurate body fat percentage.

You can usually get your skinfold measurements done by a fitness professional for free. Knowing where you’re losing the weight from (muscle or fat) can be a great way to see if you need to modify your program.

Measuring Physical Fitness

Exercise does a lot more than support weight management. A good exercise program can result in increased strength, endurance and range of motion. It’s actually simple to measure any of these effects of exercise. You can make it a point of doing an “assessment workout” each month, or get in the habit of adding in an “assessment exercise” each week and recording the metrics you use. Here are some examples:

  • Muscular strength, endurance and power
    • Maximum weight for compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press
    • Vertical jump, broad jump or short sprints
    • Maximum number of push-ups, pull-ups or dips before failure, or within a certain period of time (e.g.50 seconds)
    • Anaerobic or aerobic endurance
  • Time to complete a one-mile run or 2500 meter row
    • Distance covered in specific time period, such as 20 minutes on a bike, treadmill or rowing machine
    • Time to complete a 5K, 10K, or to swim a certain number of lengths of the pool
    • Participating in the same event from year to year is another way to measure improvements in physical performance

Try some of these, or make up your own over the next few months. For variety, you could do a workout once per month that consists of any number of these exercises. When you’re putting your workout together, do power movements, like jumps and sprints first, followed by strength exercises like the squat or pushups, and end with endurance exercises like running a 5K. You can also split them up on different days. Just be consistent each time you put yourself through the test.

Measuring Metabolic Progress

Of all the ways we can assess progress, measuring changes to your metabolism is probably the most foreign. Because your blood chemistry is such an important indicator of general health, and because it can be affected so much by nutrition and exercise, it’s wise to regularly get your blood chemistry tested. As part of a physical, people often have their lipid profiles and fasting glucose levels checked. They may also have their complete blood count (CBC) and Chem-26 levels measured. Those looking to be more proactive with their health may choose to do additional labs, or when they’re out of range, have them checked more frequently.

Being able to see how nutrition, lifestyle and exercise programs affect vitamin D levels, stress hormones, inflammation, and other important blood chemistries is an extremely powerful way to stay motivated with a program. We tend to dismiss what’s going on inside our bodies because we don’t see it unless we have a blood test done. Poor results can reinforce better behaviors. Positive changes reinforce the continuation of good behaviors. You can be proactive about your health by requesting the right labs on a regular basis instead of waiting for your next doctor appointment. Not sure what labs you should have? Talk with a fitness professional or registered dietitian at your club.

Measuring Psychological Progress

While it’s difficult to quantify the psychological benefits to exercise, there’s plenty of research to show the benefits exist — especially when combined with a nutritious diet and a healthy lifestyle. Stress is one of the most common concerns affecting peoples’ well-being. Stress can affect sleep, and a lack of sleep can lead to more stress and weight gain. Measuring psychological progress might require a little more introspection than looking at hard numbers like body composition measurements, maximum lifts or blood chemistry, but they can play an important role in modifying your lifestyle.

A journal is an easy way to become aware of psychological progress. And you don’t need to be elaborate in your writing. How many hours are you sleeping? What is the quality of your sleep? How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? Anxious? Motivated? Happy? Sad? How do you feel as the day goes on? Do you feel more energetic at different times of the day? As you read back in time, you’ll be able to connect feeling better with the lifestyle changes you make.


Could you imagine going through school without ever receiving a grade? What would be the point? Yet, many people exercise day after day and try to follow a healthy lifestyle and nutrition plan without seeing whether what they’re doing is providing any benefit. Would you be more motivated of you could see all the ways you’re program is affecting you? Consider the ideas above. Start measuring your progress and you’ll likely make more progress.

Finally, one last measure of progress people don’t consider is in taking photos. If you’re looking to lose weight, or gain it, snap your picture on a regular basis. It’s good to remember where you started and a later visual comparison can help keep you on a productive path.

Share thoughts and comments below.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (4)

Nice reading. Thanks for the information.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

I found this article to be very informative. The suggestions made are realistic and I can see myself following them.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJCH

I have been a member of LTF for almost five months and am following the 3-2-1 rule. Of course I am disappointed that I have not lost any weight, but I recognize that I have gotten much stronger as a result.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertlg

The article is right on target with my concerns. I am following a workout schedule that will hopefully help me achieve each goal.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertlg

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