How Often Should I Weigh Myself?Posted on May 18th 2010 2:00PM by Liz Neporent
George Doyle, Getty Images
In 2005, University of Minnesota researchers reviewed combined studies that included over 3,000 people who were either looking to lose weight or maintain weight loss. They found that 40 percent were fairly religious about stepping onto the scale at least once a day, 20 percent held their weigh-ins weekly and the remaining 40 percent did a weight check infrequently or avoided the scale altogether. Over a two year period, one study reported that the obsessive weighers lost an average of 12 pounds, whereas the weekly weight watchers shed only six. And the avoiders? They gained four pounds on average.
The team who runs the National Weight Control Registry, the largest database of "successful" losers in the country, also noted a relationship between the frequency of weigh-ins and the ability to maintain weight loss. More than 75 percent of their 6,000-plus participants said they keep tabs on their weight at least once a week with many of them weighing in on a daily basis. When asked, the registrants claimed their frequent weighing acts as an "early warning system" against gaining back unwanted pounds; many said they have a plan for what to do if the scale creeps up beyond a certain number. The researchers also speculate that constant feedback is good for goal setting and catching small weight fluctuations before they snowball into avalanches of unwanted fat.
OK, so to my knowledge, that's the extent of the large and reliable scientific evidence in support of weighing. Now, let me tell you why I don't think weighing yourself on a constant basis is a good idea for everyone -- a conclusion I came to after visiting an art installation a few years ago.
Emily Caigan is an artist and college professor in upstate New York who collects scales. She's got vintage weight scales dating back to the 1940s, scales from carnivals and even scales for Barbie dolls (where incidentally, the needles all point perpetually to 110 pounds). One day I sat for several hours in Caigan's amazing Scale Dances installation and observed the reactions of the women who visited.
One woman shouted, "No, no, no!" as soon as she entered the room. Another simply shut her eyes and walked out. One woman burst into tears when she came around the corner and found herself face to face with fifty bathroom scales. There wasn't a single woman who didn't have a strong reaction -- whether fear, disgust or horror -- to the Scale Dances exhibit.
(Though the men seemed immune to scale-o-phobia and some were actually quite amused.)
Caigan's brilliant art display has led me to believe that, as kryptonite is to Superman, the bathroom scale is to most women. It weighs mere ounces, but its ability to measure pounds strikes fear into hearts of females everywhere regardless of age, background, education or socioeconomic status. Scales and what they represent seem to have a deeply personal meaning for a lot of women. Perhaps this is because we give the scale a lot of power and perhaps because our weight has a tendency to symbolize our feelings of body image and confidence.
Caigan coined the term "scale dances" based on her hundreds of interviews with women over the years. In these discussions, she asked women if they have any special ritual when it comes to weighing themselves. Their answers are revealing. "Melissa" starts by cleaning off her scale with Windex then looking into the mirror before holding her breath, stepping onto the scale and looking down. "Barb" grabs the towel rack and gingerly places one foot onto the scale at a time before slowly releasing the bar and easing her weight onto the scale. "Kelly" weighs a five-pound bag of sugar before weighing herself to ensure her scale's accuracy. "Lola" uses two scales, placing a foot on each and then adding the numbers together.
I don't think any of these women are crazy, and very few of them reported having an eating disorder in the clinical sense. I suspect that many women reading this have their own private scale dance. Many may also have their own magic scale number which holds huge sway over mood, self esteem and self confidence. In fact, I suspect this is the norm -- far more so than the woman who can hop on the scale, glance dispassionately at the number displayed and then go on with the day.
It seems to me that if a number bothers you that much, as I suspect it does a lot of women, then it is not a number I would invite into my life on a regular basis. I would toss the scale into the trash and save the weight checks for the doctor's office. And even then I would skip them unless absolutely necessary. Because, when you come right down to it, the numbers are sort of arbitrary anyway. Scales tend to be highly inaccurate; and scale weight doesn't tell you much about the muscle, bone and flesh distributed within its value. Your body weight can fluctuate as much as five pounds during the course of a day and even more as a result of your monthly cycles, so what is the number really telling you?
If you must use numbers -- and they do have their place when you evaluate your health -- then use a range of numbers including body fat, BMI and circumference measurements like the ones I've outlined in previous posts so you get a more complete picture of what the needle on the scale is really pointing towards. But no matter how they add up, don't hang your entire self worth on them.
Just to double check my thoughts on this topic, I discussed them with a top mental health expert, Joe Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Medical Director of CASTLE, a division of High Point Treatment Centers in Brockton, Mass. This is what he told me: "The biggest reason for not weighing daily is that it can lead to an unhealthy obsession with the scale and ultimately lead to eating disorders. So although for some people it may be beneficial to weigh themselves daily while trying to lose weight, anyone who has had an eating disorder or is really bothered by the number on the scale shouldn't weigh themselves daily."
So there you have it. The plus of weighing yourself daily is that it can serve as a motivating reminder to stay on the straight and narrow in terms of diet and exercise. The minus is that it can be depressing and discouraging -- and inaccurate. Personally, I haven't stepped on a scale in years. I am one of those people who is freaked out by the number even though I am small and fit by anyone's standards. I never had a scale dance, but I wonder if you'd like to share yours? Or would you like to share how the act of weighing in makes you feel? If so, post it here or tweet me @lizzyfit.
Whatever your scale dance, find out why standing may help you stay lean.