Getting Over the Weight Plateau
A stalled weight loss plan may lead to better things.
You want results! You've been working out and eating healthfully, and you want to be rewarded when you step on the scale. But when the scale stops cooperating, it can be extremely frustrating, especially if you're doing all the right things, such as eating a diverse diet, watching your portion sizes, and exercising regularly.
If your weight loss has stalled, don't give into the temptation to quit -- or worse, to try more extreme measures that aren't good for your health, such as skipping meals or working out excessively. A weight plateau is no reason to give up on a healthy plan. In fact, a weight plateau could be a sign that you're ready for something more challenging or engaging. So stop, take a moment to regroup, shift the focus away from your weight for a while, and consider other ways you can measure your progress.
It's time to seek greater health rewards than the bathroom scale alone could ever give you.
The Trouble with Weight Measurement
It's easy to step onto the bathroom scale every day. However, the number it displays doesn't provide the type of information you really need to assess your fitness progress. Changes in your body composition, such as the ratio of your lean body weight -- including muscle, bone, organs, and fluids -- compared with your body fat weight, are not reflected on the bathroom scale.
Yet, some very positive shifts in your body composition may be occurring, thanks to your weight loss efforts, especially if you've been sticking to a well-rounded program of physical activity that includes strength training. Studies, like this one published in Nutrition show that regular physical activity is likely to result in a loss of body fat weight and an increase in muscle weight. On the scale this may translate into higher numbers because muscle weighs more than fat. But physically you probably look better for a couple of reasons. One reason is that muscle is dense and takes up less room than fat, so you may be measurably smaller. Another reason is that your girth is likely being redistributed in a way that is more flattering -- away from your middle.
This shift in body composition is also making your body healthier overall, in ways that the scale does not measure. For example, the extra muscle is helping you burn more calories and is giving your body added strength to support your bones and joints.
Given all these points, the best way to see how your body is changing is not to weigh yourself, but to determine whether reductions in your body fat have occurred and what kind of redistribution of your body fat has taken place.
Take Other Measures
Assessing body composition isn't as easy as stepping on the scale. There are a variety of ways to do it, and some can get rather complicated. However, you can keep it simple by focusing on one or more of these three important measurements:
- Your body fat percentage
- Your waist-to-hip ratio
- Your body mass index (BMI)
Body Fat Percentage
What is it?
Body fat measurements calculate the amount of fat tissue in your body as a percentage of your total body weight.
How is it measured?
Each of the following methods will give you an estimate of your body fat percentage. The margins of error range from 2% to 6%. However, even if your chosen method is not the most accurate, you can still benefit from taking consistant measurements, because you will be able to compare the results over time to see if your numbers are decreasing.
Keep in mind that not all of these methods are widely available. Some, like the skin fold test, are used in many health clubs, whereas others are only available at sports medicine laboratories or universities. Ask your healthcare provider or local health club manager for referrals.
- Hydrostatic -- or underwater -- weighing measures your weight in water as a way to determine your body's density. Your weight and the level of the water are recorded before and during submersion. It is considered one of the most accurate of all the body composition measures, but it is more expensive, more complicated, and more time consuming than other methods. Also, it is difficult to find testing facilities.
- Air-displacement plethysmography, or the Bod Pod, uses air displacement to measure body fat and lean muscle mass. This method calculates body volume by monitoring pressure changes in a closed chamber (plethysmograph). This data, together with body weight, is then used to estimate body fat percentage. Studies have found this to be a reliable technique that can quickly and safely evaluate body composition in a wide range of subject types. It is a relatively new technique that is becoming more widely available.
- Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) also has been shown to have a high degree of accuracy. Although it was originally developed to measure the density or thickness of your bones, it also measures body fat percentage, as well as where most of your fat is located. A machine passes over your body and takes measurements of your bone mass and soft tissue mass by sending a thin, invisible beam of low-dose x-rays through your bones.
- Bioelectric impedance measures the body's resistance to electrical flow. The more body fat there is, the slower the electrical current will be. This method is based on the principle that lean tissue conducts an electrical impulse better than fatty tissue because fat contains almost no water. Water is a good conductor of electricity, whereas muscle is about 70% water. Bathroom scales that use this technology to measure body fat composition are commercially available. However, early reports suggest that these consumer products are fairly unreliable.
- Anthropometry, or the skin fold test, measures fat by gently pinching several sites on the body (3-7 test sites are common) with calipers. The measurements are put into a formula that adjusts for factors such as gender, weight, and age. Although this is not the most accurate, it is the most readily available method for measuring body fat and is used most often at gyms and health clubs.
Why is measuring body fat important?
Measuring your body fat can help you better manage your routine and reveal whether any adjustments to your exercise and diet program are needed. For example, if you have been dieting, with little or no exercise, you may find that you've lost as much lean muscle tissue as fat. Increasing your physical activity and testing again after 4 to 6 weeks can help determine whether you've shifted back to a healthy rate of body fat loss and muscle gain.
Note: To get the most consistent measurements possible, always have the test done by the same person at the same time of day using the same method of measurement.
The range for ideal body fat percentages is fairly wide because age and gender affect the number and, most importantly, because everyone's body is unique. Used in combination with body mass index (BMI) guidelines, body fat percentage can help assess disease risk. The following table presents healthy ranges of body fat percentage for adult men and women. Staying somewhere in the middle of these ranges should be your target.
|Healthy Body Fat Percentages*|
|20-39||21% to 32%||8% to 19%|
|40-59||23% to 33%||11% to 21%|
|60-79||24% to 35%||13% to 24%|
|*In addition, BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.9|