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The Scale Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

Don't let that number discourage you.

As a certified personal trainer, I encounter a lot of people who are just beginning their fitness journeys. Before we begin any sort of training, I ask questions about each person's health history, current eating habits, activity level, and goals.

Most people have one goal in mind... to lose weight. 

Whether they want to drop ten pounds or fifty, they all seem a bit embarrassed. Some people cry, some apologize, all of them say they're tired of being fat. 

This is a struggle I understand all too well... Before I became interested in fitness, I was quite overweight. At my heaviest, I weighed 185 pounds (a lot for my 5'1" frame!).

First, let's get one thing straight. You are not fat. You have fat, just like you have bones, skin, organs, muscles... All of that combined becomes the number on the scale. For instance, did you know that, on average, an adult person's skin weighs around 20 pounds? 

It's important to understand body composition before you start working out. If not, you may face discouragement when the scale doesn't move as much as you think it should. Often I'll have a client tell me they're sure they've lost weight, only to find they haven't. 

"But... my pants fit so much better! I don't understand it!"

Here's the thing... If you are doing a well-rounded routine with plenty of resistance exercises in addition to a reasonable amount of cardio, you will probably lose inches instead of pounds. This is a good thing! It means you're burning fat and adding muscle. I'm sure you've heard the saying, "muscle weighs more than fat." That isn't quite right... five pounds of muscle and five pounds of fat weigh... five pounds. What people mean is that muscle is more dense than fat, so it takes up far less room. Fat tends to spread out, while muscle retains it's shape.

All of this is why it's so important to do some kind of weight lifting as part of your workouts. Lots of women protest when I bring this up because they're afraid of getting too bulky. Fortunately, women aren't able to bulk up naturally because we lack the testosterone to do so. Instead, lifting weights will tone your body while making it better at burning fat (even when you aren't working out!).

To get a better idea of your starting point and progress, take measurements with a measuring tape. Find out if the trainers in your gym can measure your body fat percentage with calipers. Record your beginning numbers and be sure to re-measure periodically.  

When you visit your trainer for updated measurements, be sure to pay attention to your body fat percentage. Regardless of what your scale says, this is the number that will truly show your progress. 

For women, 32-39 percent body fat is considered overweight, with anything above 40 percent being obese. To be in a normal to healthy range, you would want to be somewhere between 31-21 percent. Remember, women need more body fat than men do because our bodies are built differently. Dipping below 20 percent body fat may effect your health and might not be advisable.

Men are considered overweight between 23-29 percent body fat, and obese at anything above 30 percent. Men have more testosterone (making them more muscular than women, generally) and naturally need less body fat than women. To be in a normal range, a man's body fat would need to be at or below 22 percent.

You may eventually see the number on the scale change... Depending on how much muscle you gain, it may even get bigger! But who cares? By that time, you'll be looking so good in your jeans that the scale will be something you don't even think about. 

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