Have you been exercising, eating right, maybe you've even lost a few inches, but when you step on the scale, (gasp!) it says you've gained a few pounds? Don't panic. "Gaining" a few pounds on the scale can be misleading, especially if you're doing all the right things. Here are four things you need to know about your changing weight:
1. Water can alter your weight by as much as 10 pounds (or more).
Think you just lost a few pounds from that serious spin class? Don't get too excited—it's just water loss due to sweat. And the amount of water in your system has a heavy influence on the number you see on the scale.
"Water makes up approximately 65-90 percent of a person's weight, and variation in water content of the human body can move the scale by ten pounds or more from day to day," says Jeffrey A. Dolgan, a clinical exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, Fla. This is one of the main reasons diuretics are so popular—they flush the water out of your system, resulting in only a short term weight "loss"—but they don't help to change your body composition in any way.
2. A lot of factors can influence your weight—including your workouts.
Have you ever noticed that right after (or even a day or two after) an intense workout the scale goes up? That's normal, and it doesn't mean you've put on ‘weight,' Dolgan says.
"A person's scale mass is a combination of muscle, fat, bone, the brain and neural tract, connective tissue, blood, lymph, intestinal gas, urine, and the air that we carry in our lungs. Immediately after a workout routine, the percentage of mass in each of these categories can shift as much as 15 percent." Intense workouts cause variability on the scale due to factors like hydration status, inflammation from muscle damage repair (we call this delayed onset muscle soreness), even the amount of intestinal by-product or urine and blood volume, Dolgan says.
3. Muscle does NOT weigh more than fat.
"A common comment when looking at the scale is that ‘muscle is heavier than fat,' which is misleading," Dolgan says. "A pound of fat weighs the same as a pound of muscle, however the volume of muscle is denser than the volume of fat, and therefore heavier." When you start to change your body composition with your workouts—by building more dense muscle mass and decreasing your body fat—your scale weight may increase, while your body fat percentage may decrease. These changes happen over weeks and months (not hours or days) so the scale is useless when tracking them, Dolgan says.
4. The scale says nothing about your fitness level or body composition.
As noted above, the scale can't tell you how much of your body weight is muscle versus fat, which means if your goal is to improve your fitness level, it's not the best tool for measuring improvements.
"If someone is trying to improve their fitness, they should ignore the scale and pay more attention to objective measurement tools like body composition to track their progress," Dolgan says.
While weighing yourself can be one way to track your progress, it shouldn't be the only way. And it certainly isn't worth obsessing over with daily weigh-ins. Don't forget, Dolgan says, losing pounds on the scale does not mean that you are more fit—it just means you are lighter, which doesn't mean much at all.