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,

First of all, it’s awesome that you’re making the effort to get healthy. Even if you’re not seeing any progress, if you are eating healthy and getting a little physical activity each day you’re at least making minor improvements — whether you can see them or not. The problem with gauging progress with your eyes is that you’re rarely going to see that progress. If you’re looking at your stomach, for example, being bloated could mislead you into thinking you’ve actually gained fat or simply made no progress at all.

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

With any tool, constant measurement is only capable of showing incremental progress. That said, there are options that can provide you with more accurate results.

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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