Ask LH: How Can I Tell If My Diet And Exercise Routine Is Working?

Ask LH: How Can I Tell If My Diet And Exercise Routine Is Working?

Dear Lifehacker, In an attempt to lose some fat and get fit, I’ve started a new diet and exercise routine. It’s been a few weeks, and although I do feel better, I haven’t seen any physical signs of progress. Is there a better way to tell if I’m making any real progress or if need to work harder?Sincerely, Running in Circles?

Photo by SeDmi (Shutterstock).

Dear RiC,

The look of your stomach is also significantly modified by its contents. If you just ate, you’ll look a bit different from when you’re hungry. The same goes for your weight. Not only can what you ate mislead you, but, as personal trainer Will Barton points out, your weight can increase as a result of building new muscle mass:

Another reason not to weigh yourself too often has to do with muscle mass. When someone first starts an exercise program they have the tendency to gain muscle faster than they lose fat. Since muscle is much heavier than fat, this could really look bad on the scale and cause people to feel like they are failing.

This is why you can’t trust these methods too much, or at least too often. If you’re stuck with just your eyes and a scale, Charla McMillan, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and creator of Fitboot, suggests you only check for progress every few weeks:

Individuals should expect to feel stronger and more capable after only a few short weeks of proper diet and consistent exercise, but they should not be looking for visible changes in the mirror until they’ve been at it (again, consistently) for probably two to three months. Best to plan on checking in about every three weeks (not daily weigh-ins or mirror checks — the incremental improvements will simply be too small to be encouraging).

The thing to remember is that these tools will not provide accurate measurements of your progress, so if they’re all you have then you have to use them sparingly. If you’re looking for something that will provide a little more accuracy, however, read on.

Photo by Jo Christian Oterhals.

Get More Accurate Measurements of Your Progress

The Withings Scale tracks more than just your weight. It is capable of measuring your fat and muscle, and it can calculate your body-mass index (BMI). While this won’t give you a complete picture of your progress, it’ll offer up far more relevant information than a simple weight scale.

More accurate measurements start to get a bit more expensive from here. Tim Ferris recommends, in his book The 4-Hour Body, a number of more accurate ways to measure body fat. One of the better (albeit, more expensive) options is the BodyMetrix personal ultrasound device because it can provide information about body fat in very specific areas. He also recommends the Accu-measure body fat calipers, BodPod (air displacement weighing) and a few others. An important note he makes is that none of these methods are 100 per cent accurate, and some have a larger margin of error than others. That is why it is very important to use a consistent method when measuring your progress.

Set Realistic Expectations

What’s probably most important, however, is setting realistic expectations. If you start your diet and exercise with the belief that you’re going to see significant progress in a couple of weeks you’re misleading yourself. The advice of most personal trainers and fitness experts agrees that it generally takes a couple of months before real progress is visible. This will depend on where you’re starting and how far you’re attempting to go. Nobody has the same body and some people may take more or less time to see the progress they want to achieve. That said, if you don’t expect too much and don’t constantly check yourself for changes, you should have a much easier time believing that you’re making progress.


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  • I do this myself but I have always found keeping a pretty detailed diary of training and doing my measurements about once a month to be a pretty good way of telling how i’m going. Resting heart rate of a morning is a really good one too as this will give you a good indication of how your cardio training is going. If it keeps going down guess what your hearts getting bigger and your getting fitter 😀

  • The Withings scale looks to be rather misleading. I notice it attempts to calculate lean & fat mass from a “morphology” based solely on height and weight. I’m so big-boned that it just describes me as obese regardless of my actual very non-obese morphology.

    Frankly anything that continues to promote BMI as a useful tool draws my skepticism.

  • Firstly, if you’re trying to lose body-fat, depending on how small a calorie shortage you’re running; it may be months before you see progress.

    Secondly, if you’re trying to put on muscle, you need to view progress differently to a person trying to lose weight.

    My advice to anyone looking to track their progress is to go on ebay and buy a tape-measure under the health & fitness section. These are specialised tape-measures that have a catch mechanism, so you can accurately measure yourself (only $8.00).

    Once you receive it:

    * The first Monday of every month weight yourself first thing in the morning. Same time EVERY-TIME! Write down your weight somewhere.

    * Use the tape measure and measure around your chest, stomach, hips, thighs & right -arm monthly (right after weighing yourself on the scales). Write down your measurements.

    * Make sure you eat at least 0.5grams of protein per lbs of lean body mass to ensure you’re losing fat and not muscle. If you’re trying to build muscle, eat around 1-1.5grams per lbs of desired lean body mass.

    * If you’re trying to lose fat, your measurements should decrease as should the number on the scales. If you’re trying to gain muscle, you want the opposite to happen, only you want very very slow increase from the chest, stomach and hips region (otherwise you’re putting on fat faster than muscle).

  • The most accurate way to track weight loss is to weigh yourself every day, at the same time, preferably first thing, naked, and to track it with a running average. A 10 day running average works pretty well. That means real changes show up but water weight, extra fibre, and random fluctuations don’t tend to.

    If you are working out to get fit, though, rather than caring about body weight, tracking yourself by measuring your resting pulse, 1 rep max lifts, and similar metrics makes sense. Again, though, use a running average if you track every day or every workout session, or track less frequently.

    The problem with tracking infrequently, e.g. once a month, is that you don’t get encouraged by your progress very often.

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