I distinctly remember the first day that someone called me fat. It was the end of term on my last day of primary school. I was happily cycling around the playground at home time when one of my class mates commented to another, “Look, Glenn’s getting fat”.
It really jarred me. Prior to this I had never even considered my weight or body form. From that point onwards, in combination with many more comments, I embarked on a frustrating obsession with my weight, that would lead me to yoyo dieting, binge eating, depressive bathroom scale gazing, and a destructive self body image.
An age of fanatical body weighing began, but with no real plan in mind.
It’s what ultimately led me to becoming a health coach; the need to help others escape the continued cycle of frustration. So in many ways I am lucky that this incident happened.
But, I still get triggered, even 33 years later, and knowing what I now know.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in that time is the importance of picking the right metrics for whatever changes I am trying to achieve.
Take body fat for example, which ultimately is what most people are really wanting to lose when they talk about ‘losing weight’.
We, as a culture, have become obsessed with the dial of the bathroom scales, like it’s some magical oracle that needs to be consulted on a daily basis.
Knowing your weight is potentially a useful metric to know. It gives us a starting point and datum from which we can calculate a number of differing other metrics: basal metabolic rate, body mass index, protein goals, etc.
But by itself, and as frequently as people check it, it may not be that useful.
When we combine a healthy approach to food in conjunction with healthy movement, we will often reduce our body fat whilst simultaneously increasing muscle mass. This is the seemingly haloed result that health magazines refer to as ‘getting toned’. (Cue every PT and coach shuddering at that term.)
Now many people have heard the myth that muscle weighs more than fat. In reality, a kg of muscle weighs the same as a kg of fat, the same as a tonne of feathers weighs the same as a tonne of bricks. The difference lies in the density. A kilo of muscle is much denser and therefore smaller in volume/size than fat.
So if you are losing a good amount of body fat, but also gaining a little muscle mass you may not see the scales shift at all, in fact you may see them go up a little.
When people are using scale weight as their only metric, this scenario can be disappointing, even though they are looking leaner, feeling healthier, and have more energy.
This is the curse of the single metric approach.
One online client of mine, whose original reason for coming to us was to ‘lose a bit of weight and get a bit fitter’, logs a number of different metrics on our app.
She has made continued progress with regards to weight loss, reducing her bodyweight month on month. But on her last measurement she had gained 0.3kg. I was curious to see how she would react to this.
At the start of her health journey with me she would have been gutted; seen it as a failure. But after several years working with us she understood the value of multiple metrics.
The slight gain in scale weight gave her a moments pause, but she also measured a few other body dimensions which had decreased; her blood pressure had also continued to head in the direction we were looking for; her performance in some of our benchmark workouts had continued to improve; and she generally felt pretty good.
A 300g increase in scale weight could have a number of causes, from muscle gain, to salt intake and water retention, to hydration. Hell, I’ve probably lost more than that after a morning’s ablutions and whatnot.
Quantitative metrics like this are really useful for some people and some situations. But equally as useful are the qualitative.
It’s quite common to see people working away at their body composition goals and making great progress (with regards to their limited metrics) but feeling like absolute shite in the process. Fitness models and bodybuilding competitors are a great example. At the point of the shoot, or standing on stage, they may look like the pinnacle of ‘fitness’ but many will tell you that they are hungry, dizzy, and lethargic. Backstage at a bikini body competition, (I wasn’t competing, that time) I came across a whole line of competitors puffing away on cigarette after cigarette to try and stave off the hunger just long enough for them to drag their wonderfully formed, yet dehydrated and fatigued bodies across the stage. Not quite the epitome of health.
So whilst quantitative metric and aesthetics are good, and can lead to optimising your health, it might be worth asking yourself some qualitative questions too.
How’s your sleep quality?
How are your energy levels?
What’s your libido like?
Is your menstrual cycle as expected?
Do you wake up with a good dose of morning glory?
How’s your mood?
How is your performance?
This is one of the greatest things I see with our clients; when their mindset shifts and they realise that their bodies are an instrument not an ornament.
The focus becomes more about what their bodies are capable of and how they feel than purely about what they look like. And the beauty is that the aesthetics are likely going in the right direction as well despite viewing it all with a broader lens.
The more information we have we greater the picture we are able to see. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, different metrics can get very different interpretations when viewed in isolation.
So in general the more metrics we use to determine our progress toward our health goals the better. For sure, we can prioritise some metrics over others if they help us achieve said goals quicker, but I believe it would be foolhardy to disregard them entirely.
When one of our chosen metrics doesn’t fall in line with our desired progress, we don’t wobble out of control because we can see from the myriad other metrics that this may just be a blip, a swerve, a speed bump, and that everything else is on track.
This all helps to make us more psychologically flexible and anti-fragile in our endeavours, and makes it much easier to hold the course.
One thing to watch is the over reliance of devices that measure our quantitative metrics. I love a Fitbit, and Oura ring, or a Whoop band, but sometimes they get stuff wrong or the data just doesn’t match up with what you are actually experiencing.
Many’s the time I’ve woken up feeling refreshed and ready to attack the next training session only for my watch to tell me to take the day easy due to a poor night’s sleep. so don’t take anything as absolute, trust your gut, and don’t fixate on your tech. Think quantitative and qualitative.
So in short, don’t fixate on any one metric. Having a single goal is fine but make it part of a bigger picture of health. The more arrows we have in our quiver to shoot, the greater our chances of hitting the target.