As a health writer, I thought I had my best health all figured out—but I didn't. Here's how I stopped caring about the number on the scale and reprioritized my fitness and nutrition goals.
There is an extremely fit man asking me to strip down, put on a shower cap, and step into an egg-shaped space pod. To be clear, the man is an exercise physiologist, the stripping and shower cap are necessary for getting an accurate read on the surface area of my exposed skin, and the space egg is a BodPod—a body composition machine made to measure body fat percentage and resting metabolic rate.
First, let's get some stats out of the way. I'm in my mid 20s. I weigh 130 pounds, have never been above a size four, and if I stand real straight, I measure up at 5'4". As a journalist, I write about health and fitness daily, and I practice what I preach. Before that I was a runner and gym lover and even before that I was a competitive dancer.
In short, I've always been on top of taking care of my body. So when I stepped out of the BodPod and sat down with my results, I was shocked. I had 31 percent body fat.
"If we want to get healthy fat levels for a female, I'd say 18 to 22 percent is extremely good and 22 to 30 percent is acceptable," Craig Cristello told me. He's an exercise physiologist at the Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.
My results made me "skinny fat"—a group getting a lot of attention for potentially hidden health risks in the world of wellness recently. To be frank, it scared the shit out of me.
A 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found that a high body fat percentage upped participants' risk of cardiovascular diseases—even when they fell into a normal "healthy" range on the scale. The same is true of diabetes risk, according to a 2011 study published in the same journal. Gulp. As Cristello put it, "If you're 300 pounds or 100 pounds with an unhealthy body fat percentage, you're exposed to the same risks."
I looked at my closet full of size fours...LIARS! How the hell could it be that I checked so many "fit" boxes while still winding up in a high-risk health zone? It was a wake-up call.
For so long, my fitness priorities were all about my appearance. Get up for that 6 a.m. run so you can push that number on the scale into the 120s. But as soon as I saw my red-zone result, I realized I needed to change my thinking fast. Just because my weight was in a healthy zone didn't mean I was actually, well, healthy.
I'm certainly not the first person to realize it's time to refocus their health goals. The world of health and fitness has recently seen a shift toward zeroing in on wellness—not weight—and celebs from Lena Dunham to Kate Winslet to Ashley Graham have been speaking out about re-prioritizing their health goals. (See these refreshingly honest celebrity body confessions.) "I didn't start working out to get skinnier—I started working out to feel better," Rita Ora told Shape in a recent interview. "I think it's important for women to know that." Amen to that.
Luckily, as a health writer, I get to talk to nutrition and fitness experts every day and try out an arsenal of cutting-edge health tech like the BodPod. After my trip to the BodPod, I decided to throw my weight behind eating and working out for wellness—not a number on the scale. Here's what I learned over six months.
I can lift, bro.
As soon as I got my results, the first thing I did was enlist the help of a trainer. "Most people are really good about the treadmill or HIIT, but they're not doing the strength training to build lean mass," Cristello told me. "We need to increase that muscle."
To lower my body fat percentage, I was given a prescription to keep up with my regular cardio (to zap some of that fat mass) and add in strength training three to four times a week to increase the amount of lean mass in my body.
Rows, shoulder presses, hammer curls, weighted lunges, and jump squats became part of my daily workouts. I loved feeling stronger and like I could kick some ass. The fact that I was looking (kind of) cut all of a sudden didn't hurt either.
Then, several weeks into my new workout routine, I stepped on a scale. I had gained weight. What gives?! Yes, yes, I know—muscle is denser than fat. But after weeks working out so hard to get healthier, it was demoralizing to see those extra few pounds. We're taught that weight gain means you're fat. All this research and work and here I was feeling like a failure.
After a week of feeling like crap about my body and anxiously stepping on the scale after every meal, I realized I was forgetting the point. This is about wellness, not weight. That number is not an all-encompassing indication of my health. Period.
Demoralized, I decided to stop weighing myself. Seeing gains and nerding out over my health stats has always helped me stay motivated, though, so I wanted to regularly track my progress. So I switched my scale for a measuring tape—even if pounds weren't coming off, inches were, meaning my new workout routine was driving fat mass down and bulking up my stores of lean mass. Hello, lower body fat percentage—and with it a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet.
I knew that prioritizing wellness also meant prioritizing a healthier diet, so I took a test to see what my particular body needs in terms of nutrition.
"Our bodies are just as unique inside as they are outside, Jae Berman, M.S., R.D., told me. She's head nutrition coach at Habit, a startup that analyzes your body's unique nutritional needs. "Evidence shows that you should eat in a different way based on your unique biology."
Habit (the test I took) looks at how efficiently your body processes carbs, fats, and proteins, and analyzes your DNA for certain biomarkers that could mean you need to show certain aspects of your nutrition more love. After an at-home spit swab to ship off for genetic testing and an at-home blood test that tracked my metabolic prowess after fasting, I learned some super-valuable things about the way my body works. First up, my metabolism is in a healthy range (phew!), which means my body doesn't have a major problem processing carbs, protein, or fats. (Some people may process one macro nutrient less efficiently than others. For example, if you have a hard time processing fats, following a high-fat diet like the Mediterranean Diet wouldn't actually be healthy for you.)
The genetic test revealed I have a few significant biomarkers: my body is sluggish when it comes to producing omega-3 fatty acids; I don't transport vitamin D efficiently; I'm prone to higher levels of inflammation; my bod's response to insulin and glucose is affected, meaning I'm at a higher risk of developing diabetes. Well, at least I have the info to help me prevent it.
Not all indulgences are worth it.
I adjusted my routine to include more strength training and eating a lot of inflammation-fighting salmon, rich in omega-3 and vitamin D. I also started eating more fiber and limiting my fat intake to counteract that higher risk of diabetes. I felt leaner, more energetic, and even like I had more flexibility and stamina. But was this *really* doing anything? After all, I thought I was healthy before. I wanted more hard data to measure my health.
Since weight isn't a fitting measure to track my wellness goals, I looked for a way to track the impacts of my food and fitness choices in real time. That's when I came across LEVL, a futuristic device that uses a nanosensor to take a breath measurement that pinpoints exactly how much fat your body is burning at any time. So damn cool.
"What LEVL is telling you is how the wellness choices you made yesterday—including diet, fitness, and even sleep and stress—is putting you in a fat-burning state," Courtney Witter, product marketing manager at LEVL, told me. "Basically it's giving you the feedback you'll see on the scale in three weeks, today."
The breath number you receive is a measure of the acetone levels in your breath, which indicates how much fat your body is burning, for those who want to get technical. When I took my first reading, I was eating clean and sticking to my workout schedule. My level score was a 12.4. In real world terms, it meant my body was burning fat at a rate of .58 pounds per day. Um, score!
"What you're trying to do is manipulate your fat metabolism with different things, get that feedback immediately, and continually modify and change," Joe Anderson, Ph.D., clinical scientist at LEVL, told me. "Diet is going to have the biggest impact."
My next reading came after an indulgent night out with friends for Korean BBQ: LEVL score 6.7, or .29 pounds of fat burned per day. I wasn't that surprised—having a massive less-than-healthy meal was bound to impact my body. But that's the kind of hit I'm willing to take. For me, wellness includes balance. Some nights, you gotta have the Korean BBQ.
When I spoke with Anderson, he warned me that alcohol was going to have huge effect on my scores, and more importantly, on my body's fat-burning state. "Your body cannot store alcohol as fat molecules, so it gets burned off before sugar and fat," he explained. "If you drink alcohol, your body is going to be at a lower fat-burning state than it would be for a longer period of time."
I took my third reading after a healthy day that finished with a concert where I'd had one beer. My morning after score was a shocking 4.4—barely a third of where I was on a healthy non-drinking day. What's worse was that my score continued to fall for the rest of the day, bottoming out in the low 2's, even though I was back to eating well and exercising. All that for one crappy concert beer?! Small choices have a bigger impact than we might think. Suddenly, having a "just because" glass of Tempranillo at dinner isn't so tempting.
Rather than getting swept up in the individual scores, LEVL is about taking a step back to understand how individual food choices are impacting your body. Rather than obsessing over constant calorie math, it's about getting a handle on how what you nosh either fuels or impairs your metabolism. The most valuable thing I learned from LEVL is that some splurges aren't worth it.
Shaping up my goals.
My goals used to be about 1) sliding into my skinny jeans, and 2) being fit enough to crush a 10K. But by getting up close and personal with my health data, I learned I wasn't actually healthy. By changing those goals to line up more closely with getting a healthy body vs. a bikini bod, I actually am healthier, physically and mentally. Recently, I broke my no-scale rule to check in on my progress. Despite my visible muscle gains, I'd lost a couple of pounds—a good sign for my body fat percentage.
Turns out, prioritizing wellness matters to me more. Recently, while on a run, I was about to let myself off the hook and cut my treadmill session short—a habit I've long wished I could ditch. Whatever, it's not like I have to get in a bathing suit anytime soon. But then I paused and thought about how I'd felt getting those BodPod results. It was the first time I'd ever had an unhealthy test result in my life. And it felt terrible. My body does a lot for me, like getting me over the finish line with a new PR—the least I can do is take care of it and make sure it's the healthiest it can be. So, rather than quitting that treadmill session, I finished my run because I owe my body healthy choices.
Because this goal really matters to me, I'm better at sticking to it. I get up for those 6 a.m. runs because I want to feel good enough to run for a long time. I skip that second drink with dinner because I want my healthier lifestyle to be as effective as it can be. And I trashed my scale because wellness totally trumps weight in my book.