It's possible to shape up without actually dropping weight.
You’ve been doing everything right: loading up on greens, lifting weights, and going easy on the wine and late-night snacks. But whenever you step on the scale, the same digits stare back at you—or worse, the number is higher than it was last time. WTF?
Before you get too worked up, the scale doesn’t tell the whole story—and you know this! Fortunately there are other ways to gauge your progress: As you get healthier, a few subtle mind-body clues begin to surface. Read on to learn what to look for. If you can check any of the boxes below, it’s a safe bet you’re on the right track (even if the scale claims otherwise).
Your junk food cravings have mellowed out
Once you’ve adapted to a cleaner diet, your hankerings for sugar and processed foods should get less intense (and may even go away completely), says Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “You can absolutely train your body to crave healthy foods instead,” he says. In other words, jonesing for edamame is an excellent sign you’ve made headway.
Test your taste buds: Make a list of five foods you once craved; then after two weeks, note whether you crave them anymore. The shift can happen very quickly, says Dr. Hyman, who wrote The Blood Sugar Solution: 10-Day Detox Diet. “If you load up on plant foods, healthy fats, and protein with every meal, you will find that eventually you won’t want the junk.”
You’re reaching for heftier dumbbells
So you finally started lifting—or doing body-weight workouts—to build fat-burning muscle. Here’s some encouraging news: You may notice progress stat. For some people, it takes just a few weeks to see improvements in strength. “This is often referred to as beginner’s gains,” says Kourtney Thomas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in St. Louis. (After that, progress may slow, but it should still happen over time.)
Track your gains: As a general rule, if your regimen includes progressive overload (meaning you gradually make your muscles work harder over time, by adding weight or tension) you should be able to lift weight that is 7 to 10 percent heavier—or do endurance strength moves (such as planks) for longer—after every 14 days or so. Try using specific exercises (think bicep curls and a squat hold) as "benchmarks," and testing yourself every two weeks or so. But keep in mind that fitness progress isn’t always linear, Thomas notes. “Other general clues like having more energy for workouts, and better balance and coordination are valuable indicators too,” she says.
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You’ve never felt more rested
“Exercise has been proven to not only boost your daytime energy, but your sleep quality, too,” says Marci Goolsby, MD, a physician in the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Researchers have found that when people with insomnia get on a long-term exercise program, they tend to doze off quicker, snooze longer, and sleep more deeply than before they started working out. (Just don’t bang out a HITT routine right before bed, Dr. Goolsby warns, because that might actually keep you up.)
Collect some data: Use a sleep tracker device for a few weeks. “It can give you some general feedback,” says Dr. Goolsby, such as how long it takes you to drift off, and how long (roughly) you spend in REM sleep (the deepest stage). Once you start noticing positive changes, you may be motivated to hit the hay earlier, she adds.
Your appetite has changed
If your get-fit plan has you turned you into a gym rat, you may not be as hungry as usual—or, you may be famished. Exercise can actually have both effects: Some people experience a drop in appetite, while others crave more food.
If your end goal is a slimmer waist, feeling ravenous can be frustrating. But you may actually need more food to keep burning calories, says Thomas: “You might have to increase what you are eating to fuel your body through your exercise routine.”
Assess your eating habits: In a notebook or with voice recordings in your smartphone, keep tabs on your hunger levels and rough calorie intake. If you do notice you’re eating more since you’ve started crushing your workouts in full-on beast mode, that okay, says Dr. Hyman. “Just make sure you’re adding real, whole foods,” he says. “Eight hundred calories from an avocado is going to do dramatically different things to your body than 800 calories coming from gummy bears.”
Your jeans fit differently
“Focusing on how your clothing feels is a good gauge for most people,” says Thomas, "as long as you recognize that sizing is a messed up mind game and are able to not worry about that." But don’t expect your pants to get looser necessarily; you may actually fill them out a bit better. This is what happens to Dr. Goolsby (who describes herself as not naturally muscular) when she starts a new workout. “If I start doing Spin, for example, all of a sudden I’m starting to notice my pants feel a bit tighter as I’m building my quads. It’s not because I’m gaining weight, I’m putting on muscle.”
Do a mirror check: If you want visual evidence of how your body is changing, consider snapping pics of yourself wearing the same outfit (and at the same time of day) every so often. (Note: If this habit becomes obsessive or makes you feel discouraged, it’s not worth doing.) Even just taking a mental note of how you feel physically in your clothes when you get dressed in the morning is fine.
Should you toss your scale?
The number on the scale is not worth fixating on—but that doesn’t mean weighing yourself is a complete waste, says May Tom, RD, an in-house dietitian at Cal-a-Vie Health Spa in Vista, California. “Having objective data to look at can help move people toward change,” she says. Research backs her up: Two recent studies have reaffirmed that people who step on the scale regularly tend to lose more weight than those who weigh themselves less frequently or not at all.
So how often should you weigh in? Once a week at most, says Tom. “That’s my usual recommendation if people feel like [the scale] keeps them on track and accountable,” she explains. “Any more than that and you can become frustrated if you don’t see progress.”