This post may be one of the hardest I have tried to write because of my love-hate relationship with the scale. As a teen, I loved when the scale number went down. And I hated the confusion that arose when, despite best efforts, it went up. Before I knew any better, I sometimes stepped on mine multiple times a day. I didn’t understand that weight can fluctuate several pounds from morning to night. Worse, I fell into the “good” and “bad” trap, sometimes getting knocked flat by a number my young brain interpreted as “too high”. (According to whom?) After decades of struggle, one day I finally realized it was time to ditch the scale.

Grizzly bear Steve at Woodland Park Zoo. Zoos use scales to assess body weight as one of many health metrics and to adjust nutrition according to life cycles.
Grizzly bear Steve at Woodland Park Zoo. Zookeepers use scales to assess body weight as one of many health metrics and to adjust nutrition according to animals’ life cycles. Human scales should come with instruction manuals.

What the Scale Measures

A typical scale measures how much mass your physical body has in earth’s gravity. Nothing more, nothing less. It cannot tell you anything about your intrinsic value, your personality or skills, or how you manage crises in the real world. A digital Tanita scale uses bioelectrical impedance to supply information about body composition, but only if the user is properly hydrated. A recent online article in Forbes estimates that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. So at best, scales provide a snapshot of relative trends rather than absolutes. At worst, they can destroy delicate self-esteem, especially in teens whose bodies are changing hormonally and growing into their adult forms.

Weighing Frequency

What does a healthy relationship with the scale look like? My husband weighs daily with no obvious disordered relationship, as far as I can tell. As a trainer and coach, it seems to me that stepping on once a month at the same time of day might provide a useful reference point. While I never ask clients to weigh themselves, I do occasionally provide body fat testing as a more useful gauge of wellness. It seems to me that scales do more harm than good. Maybe that’s a reflection of who comes to me for help. Regardless, scales should come with kisage instructions on proper use.

Three obvious exceptions to my monthly guideline come to mind. If you are pregnant and concerned about gaining too much weight, then weighing once a week seems reasonable. At my Ob-GYN visits during my pregnancy, I regularly turned backward on the scale and asked my provider to let me know about anything of concern. When she mentioned that I was gaining weight too fast, I adjusted my behavior. I never needed to know the raw number.

Greater one-horned rhinoceros Glen at Woodland Park Zoo. If you know you have an unhealthy weighing habit, consider whether it's time to ditch the scale.
Greater one-horned rhinoceros Glen at Woodland Park Zoo. If you know you have an unhealthy weighing habit, consider whether it’s time to ditch the scale.

Likewise, someone recovering from severe dehydration may need to weigh more frequently to assess whether they are properly replenishing their fluids. And if someone is unable to eat (i.e. for surgery or other medical procedures) weighing more frequently for a very short time period can help the person return to stasis.

Lag Effect

What about the supposed “lag effect”? Years ago a client asked how he could climb Mt. Rainier in the heat of the summer, only to see a higher number on the scale the next day. I asked what he ate during his three-day climb. The answer: salty snack foods such as pretzels, nuts, beef jerky, chips, and so forth. Aha!

High-sodium snacks cause fluid retention, resulting in a temporary increase in scale weight. The same thing can also happen from eating FODMAPS foods or cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, all of which can cause bloating for some people.

Bumi, Woodland Park Zoo's male Malayan tiger.
Bumi, Woodland Park Zoo’s male Malayan tiger.

The same client stepped on the scale several days later, after resuming normal eating. He experienced what I have dubbed the “lag effect.” His weight had dropped below his baseline. Had he been on a monthly weighing routine, such microdetails would not matter. The overall trend does. It goes without saying, but if someone is hiking purely to lose weight, they may engage in harmful practices. Getting dehydrated puts them at risk of making bad decisions. Improper fueling could put their whole team in jeopardy.

Ditch the Scale; Use Common Sense

If you ate too much the previous day, you already know it. What will you gain by seeing a scale number? And really, so what? Today is a new day. Your goal should be to ensure that you make better choices. If you feel like you are dehydrated, you don’t need permission from a scale to drink more water. When did we lose trust in ourselves? Who says Up equals Bad, while Down means Good? The media. Have you given away your power, mood, and choices to an inanimate $50 box? If so, how’s that going for you?

The author for scale next to a model T-Rex, Woodland Park Zoo summer 2021.
The author standing next to a model T-Rex, Woodland Park Zoo summer 2021. An appropriate use of “scale.”

Important Questions to Ask Yourself

If you use a scale more often than monthly, ask yourself these questions:

  • WHY do you get on it? Curiosity? Punishment? Habit? Interest in trends? Did someone tell you to?
  • WHAT other ways might you gauge today’s health and wellness? Sleep quality? Mood? Alertness? Appetite?
  • WHAT will you gain by knowing today’s number? Can you skip without consequences?
  • WILL seeing an unexpected number impact your mood or negatively influence your choices? If so, give yourself a pass. Gauge your progress in other ways.
Water Lily and Guadalupe enjoying a swim at Woodland Park Zoo.
Water Lily and Guadalupe enjoying a swim at Woodland Park Zoo.

How to Gauge Progress If You Ditch the Scale

The best ways to gauge progress without using a scale are:

  • Clothing fit – are your favorite clothes tight? That may be a sign to reduce intake or increase movement. Try to remember that building lean muscle mass may change how clothes fit.
  • Appearance — especially in a photograph. People with an unhealthy relationship to the scale tend to have a skewed impression of their bodies. Looking in the mirror won’t change that but looking at a photograph may. You can also ask for feedback from trusted loved ones.
Glen and Taj, Woodand Park Zoo's greater one-horned rhinos, enjoying a swim. What would happen if you ditch the scale this summer?
Glen and Taj, Woodand Park Zoo’s greater one-horned rhinos, enjoying a swim. Can you ditch the scale this summer?
  • Bodyfat measurements – use a tape measure to record dimensions around the chest, hips, and waist. Repeat every three months.
  • Appetite — do you feel like eating everything around you? You may be missing key nutrients. Do you hate the thought of eating or hide your eating from others? If so, it may be time to talk to a trusted professional who can help you manage your thoughts and build new habits.
  • Mood — list five things you love about yourself. Keep track of affirmations that work for you. Incorporate other stress-relieving methods to help your body become its best self. And use a relative mood scale (the kind I recommend!) ranging from 1 (lousy) to 10 (awesome). That way, you can work on your whole self, both emotionally and physically.

Leave a Comment

Above all else, remember that thoughts are merely thoughts. You can learn to take control of them. If you get rid of your scale, you remove its power and start trusting yourself. If you have strategies for measuring improvement you’d like to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear how others have handled “the box of shame.”

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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6 Comments

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  1. Blog 49! Can’t wait for the Grand Finale of “Season 1” of the Blog 😊 Thanks for another thoughts provoking post. My initial reaction, while reading it, was: this does not seem to “applies to me” because I have not been too worried about stepping on the scale on a fairly regular basis. But then I realized that it could be because I am « a guy »… and I am dismayed at what appears to be a fairly unequal take on people’s weight based on gender. I cannot think of many positive stories (from “the media”, social and others, as you point out) told about women deviating from “the standard”, but the same does not seem to hold true for men. How many times have I heard someone called a “big guy”, with undertones of strength and power (“good things”), not “shameful” weight gain? Top sports like football seek players with large bulk for key positions; I looked up statistics for Offensive Line and Defensive Tackle players: both have an average weight north of #300… and these are “admired athletes”. Is it then surprising that I never felt a lot of OUTSIDE pressure to “keep my weight under control”? That does not mean that I did not want to FEEL BETTER in my body at times. The scale did not help with that; as you point out, is a critical tool in a few limited situations. For example, when I suffered from a kidneys dysfunction (“minimal change disease”) causing me to retain fluids, it was important to weight myself regularly (the story of your Mt Rainier client reminded me of my 2-years long zero-salt diet at that time). The more I learned about nutrition, about exercising, and about other life patterns (sleeping habits, mental fitness, self-empathy, reprograming the brain, etc.), the more I became able to easily establish if my body was in a healthy state or not; fundamentally the scale did not provide useful information above and beyond what I already knew. Furthermore, I already have an overactive “Inner Critic” (Blog #43)… I don’t need an overall “dumb” device to chime in.

    1. As always, Gerard, you bring up some thought-provoking ideas on the topic. And yes, I was hoping you’d chime in with your perspective from a male point-of-view, as I know this particular issue lands differently for male readers vs. female. 300# for pro football players is acceptable, while 150# for pro ballerinas is not… I know form and function go hand in hand but yeah, seems unfair in some ways. I wonder just how MANY of our thoughts come from outside ourselves and if, with hard work, they can be changed. I think the answer is yes. When we really stop and think about how those ideas were planted there — be it by media or otherwise — we can get at the heart of what we REALLY believe (based on cold, hard FACTS) and what is right FOR OURSELVES. If someone can step on a scale and see “Oh, up a few; better not have that dessert I was planning on later. I’ll walk instead,” and not have it impact their entire day, then the relationship with the scale is probably healthy enough. If on the other hand, someone sees +.5 pounds and immediately goes into a diatribe of, “I can’t eat for a week. I’m such a slob with no willpower. I suck,” — well, even exaggerated, you get the idea. If you get rid of the scale, you get rid of one path toward putting yourself down. Hopefully, you can replace it with a more positive and supportive habit. And as you pointed out, some biological issues, like kidney dysfunction, can definitely get the nod for monitoring more often. KISAGE: Keep It Simple and Good Enough. Enough of my rambling. Thanks for continuing the dialogue! Hike on!

  2. Again, great article. I love my scale and could never get rid of. Like your husband, I weigh myself everyday early morning. I never stress out if my number is up😃. I will adjust my food intake or do more exercises. I eat almost everything in moderation. You don’t need a scale but, this is useful. How you fit in your clothes is a very good indicator. To loose weight you need to be motivated, not externally, but internally. And you will need to track you weight daily, then you need a scale.

    I also use a scale for everything that go into my backpack. True, I always like numbers, it could be the main reason for the love of scales.😍

    1. Silvie Marie, thanks for your post! You bring up a couple of most excellent points. One: figuring out how much your pack weighs — yes, that is a great and valid use of a scale. I DO use a hand-held pack scale for that very purpose (it would break with bodyweight though). Two: my intention in this post was to support those who feel exceedingly vulnerable about body weight and to discourage anyone from too-frequent weighing IF THEY KNOW they have a HARMFUL relationship with the scale. When I realized that I was giving way too much power to the box, I took that power back by asking my husband to hide it from me so it could still be in the house (and he could continue HIS daily weight habit) but I would not be compelled to get on it unless I deliberately needed to and could legitimately justify the reason for getting on it (other than shaming myself). Three: one point I forgot to make is a fourth legitimate reason for more frequent weighing, and that’s athletes or competitors who have to “make weight” for their sport. Lightweight rowers, wrestlers, boxers and so forth have a legitimate “need” to know what they weigh so they are able to pursue their event. Four: INTERNAL motivation, you nailed that one on the head. NOT to lose weight because that’s simply what media dictates, but because YOU want to feel a certain way (whether that’s feeling healthy, not getting winded going upstairs, being fit to do X, and able to perform well at Y). Lastly, I’ve been thinking about this post ever since launching it. I think having to “make weight” for lightweight crew in college fed my pre-existing angst over numbers (established as a teen) while my husband, who competed in powerlifting and had to “make weight” for his weight class, didn’t have those leanings. It’s a complicated issue and we’ve only scratched the surface but hopefully it will help people ask THEMSELVES: What is my relationship with the scale and do I want or need to alter it? Good stuff! Thanks again!

  3. This is a great post. Recently I had discussed with my coach that I was going to throw away my scale. I had enough feedback in the “world” that I was allowing to dictate who I was. I didn’t need to have the scale doing that for me as well. So yep, I tossed my scale – I let that part of me go. And it felt good until it didn’t. I realized that, for me, when I am in a place of making choices that support a healthy weight and body, that I use it as a check-in or an accountability tool, if you will. So, at $19 from Amazon I purchased another scale. I have been able to see it as a “check-in” that means nothing, in a sense, but a guideline for what I may or may not need to change.
    Currently, I am 65 and currently I am wanting to lose 10 pounds. Twenty-three years ago I weighed 297 pounds. I then lost 167 pounds and have kept that off for 21 years. I have come a long way and I have had a huge win. And yet, I also realized that I was looking at that 10 pounds as if it were 167!!
    If my coach and the book, The Gap and The Gain didn’t remind me of where I had been and what I had achieved, I may have still been in that place. I’m wanting to continually look for the Gain. I reminded myself that a 10 pound weight gain is nothing compared to the 167 pound weight gain and loss of 21 years ago. Hmm.. possibly after having saying all th Ie above, I was still allowing these weekly weigh-ins to dictate for me. There is progress in consistency. So, okay, monthly weigh-in accountability – I got you !!
    Great blog post

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, Cathy! 167 pounds is a GINORMOUS win. Wow. An inspiration for all those wanting to follow in your footsteps. And yes, looking for the GAIN is a lifelong endeavour. I have found that my attitude is much improved when I catch myself in the GAP and shift back to the GAIN. And on the verge of hitting 50 blogs in 50 weeks, I am celebrating this Blog as a HUGE GAIN. Comparison with others sucks the joy right out of things but comparing yourself to where you were three months ago, a year ago, 21 years ago? WOW, woman!! Great going. Try it out and see how it works for you. And keep reading!