Stepping on the scale can be more daunting than hauling yourself out of bed to make a 6 a.m. spin class. But if you're trying to lose weight, it's probably worth it. "A scale should be as important as your toothbrush," says David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. Which begs the question: Just how often should you weigh yourself if you're trying to lose weight?
Don't fear the scale: Why you may want to weigh in daily
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In a recent study in the journal Obesity, Levitsky and his colleagues gave scales to 162 people interested in losing weight. The entire group attended an initial meeting, where half (the "intervention group") were given specific instructions about tracking their progress. While they could shed pounds any way they chose, this group was told to aim to lose one percent of their body weight at a time, monitoring their results by weighing in every day and charting the number on a graph.
When participants lost 10 percent of their body weight, they were told to try to sustain that for a year using the same methods. "It's pretty easy to lower your weight by one percent, but in the weight reduction business, the problem is sustaining it. Tracking it on the scale can help," says Levitsky.
It turns out that daily weigh-ins were pretty darn effective. After one year, 29 percent of people in the intervention group maintained at least a five percent total weight loss compared to just 10 percent of the control group. After two years, participants tracking their weight were also better able to maintain that weight loss, compared to those who did not.
So does this mean you really have to step on the scale every single day if you want to lose weight — and keep it off? Well, maybe. "When it comes to behavior change of any kind, self-monitoring is one of the most valuable tools," says Scott Kahan, MD, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness.
There are a few potential reasons stepping onto a scale may help you shed pounds. First of all, weight gain can't just slip by unnoticed. "If you're gaining weight, you'll see it and do something," says Levitsky. Beyond that, there may be some deeper psychological reasons why a scale can be a valuable piece of your weight loss arsenal. "It acts as a form of positive or negative reinforcement," Levitsky says. "If you see you gained weight, you'll reflect on what you may need to change, and if you lost weight, it reinforces that whatever you're doing is working."
Furthermore, weighing yourself daily might help you resist the urge to eat mindlessly. When you see food, you're automatically inclined to take it as a cue to eat food, Levitsky says. "A recent study demonstrated that if you first step on a scale, then watch food commercials, it no longer [results in] eating," says Levitsky. "Weighing yourself daily may give you the strength to resist when you're constantly surrounded by food cues."
This may sound convincing — but the scale can also be controversial. The number you see may fluctuate for a number of reasons — like if you're bloated, or have been eating too many salty foods, Kahan says.
Plus, some people can't cash in on the body benefits of consistent weighing because it tanks their mood. "Everybody has different needs and tendencies. Constant weighing can throw some people for a loop. They get freaked out when the number goes up by a pound, and it ends up being counterproductive," says Kahan.
Although there are other methods you can use to track your weight, it might be worth working through your scale-phobia. "No other method of tracking weight loss is 100 percent equivalent to weighing yourself. In a lot of cases, just working through the scale anxiety with a professional helps to get past that, so you can use it in a productive way," says Kahan. Still not feeling it? Try these tips on for size.
Break out your tightest pair of jeans. The way your clothes fit tends to correlate with how much weight you're losing, says Kahan. A more exact version of this would be grabbing a measuring tape and jotting down the circumference of your waist, hips, thighs and arms every week. "Keep in mind that this could also have the same effect as weighing yourself, that sometimes the number goes in the right direction, but sometimes it doesn't move as much as you'd think it would given how hard you're working," says Kahan.
Head over to a pharmacy to buy a blood pressure cuff you can keep on hand. "When you're working towards a physical goal, usually some measures improve before others," says Kahan. "Maybe the scale isn't going down as much as you thought, but your blood pressure is getting better, or vice versa." Though it's not an exact marker of how much weight you're losing, monitoring your blood pressure is a helpful reminder that health goes much deeper than a shrinking waistline.
Let's face it: You'll probably have to step on the scale at some point. One way to quell your nerves might be to try this experiment that proves how quickly your weight can change. First, step on the scale and write down the number you see. Then go get a huge glass of water, drink it, and get on the scale again. "Your weight will likely go up between one and three pounds, just from the water. No calories, and no real weight gain. This is a good way to start to understand the scale," says Kahan. When you realize the number can rise because of arbitrary reasons, it's easier to see the scale as exactly what it is: a useful tool to track your weight — nothing more, and nothing less.