Weight Fluctuations Part 2: How Often Should I Weigh Myself?
Last week, I talked about what causes your body weight to fluctuate from day to day. If you didn’t read that article yet, I would highly recommend it. This week, I want to look at how you can use self weighing to improve your health and wellness. I also want to talk about some of the potential drawbacks of frequent self weighing, and provide strategies for combating this. Whether you are someone trying to lose weight, gain weight, maintain weight, improve healthy habits, or even if you are another coach looking for strategies that will best benefit your clients, this article has information and citations that may help you.
A primary strategy that I have promoted for many of my clients is daily self weighing. It’s simple - you step on the scale once a day, at the same time every day. You record your bodyweight, and then move on. Keep track of your numbers over the days, weeks, and months, while you watch your weight change. I have anecdotally found that just getting someone to weigh themself regularly can often lead to weight loss, without necessarily introducing other interventions. My guess as to why this works is because stepping on the scale regularly likely subconsciously encourages other weight loss behaviors.
The concepts behind daily self weighing seem sound. Weighing yourself daily “de-threatens” the process. Many people experience a considerable amount of stress and anxiety when it comes to stepping on the scale. In fact, it is so common that it has actually been given a name - “gravitophobia” - the fear of the scale or self weighing (5). This fear may go hand in hand with the irrational belief that weight management requires strict control (it doesn’t).
The process of frequent self weighing aims to abolish this fear. The more times you weigh yourself, the less significant each individual weigh-in becomes. The more often you step on the scale, the more you realize that your weight will often fluctuate upwards or downwards on any given day. These fluctuations happen due to causes that are hard to specifically attribute “blame”, and they probably don’t matter anyway (see my previous article).
Self weighing also exists to promote self-efficacy. Developing this is a big factor in successful weight loss and weight management. Those who have a higher degree of self efficacy have been shown to have a higher likelihood of losing weight, maintaining a healthy body weight, and having good dietary control. They are also more likely to stick to a physical activity program long-term 6,7).
Suffice it to say, there are many good and valid reasons to promote regularly weighing yourself. Now let’s look at how often you should do this.
Self Weighing Frequency
How often should you weigh yourself? Once a week? Twice a year? 8 times a day? Something else? And why does it matter? Well, I will tell you.
A 2016 study of 18-25 year-olds (79% female) subjected them to a 3-month lifestyle intervention program. The study used three different methods - face-to-face, web-based, and hybrid - in order to deliver the program. Across all intervention types, participants were to note how often they weighed themselves, and these self-reported weighing frequencies were then compared to their weight loss results.
While the majority of participants reported weighing less than once per week, those who did weigh themselves more frequently generally saw better results. Not only were weight loss outcomes better for those who weighed themselves more frequently, but those who actually increased their frequency of self weighing during the intervention period (i.e. they weighed themselves more towards the end of the study than the beginning) also saw better success (3).
Another study, done in 2012, observed the more long-term correlation between self weighing frequency and bodyweight. This study aimed to see if frequent self weighing prevented weight gain in free living conditions among working adults. The follow-up questionnaire asked participants how often they weighed themselves throughout the preceding 2-year period, with response options ranging from “never” to “more than once per day”.
The following is pulled directly from the study in question:
“...the benefits of regular self-weighing were most pronounced among obese participants. Specifically, daily self-weighers lost weight across all BMI categories, but obese participants who reported daily self-weighing clearly lost the most weight over two years relative to all other combinations of baseline BMI and self-weighing frequency” (8)
Most studies seem to point to similar findings (9,10). Daily self weighing is a big deal for weight loss. It seems that weighing yourself less frequently than once a day is not as effective, and weighing yourself more frequently than once a day is unnecessary.
So, we’re done! Or are we? No, we are not. This is just talking about weight-loss outcomes. While your body weight is an important contributing factor to health and fitness, there is a lot more to it than just your that. Let’s delve deeper.
The Potential Harm of Daily Self Weighing
It may seem odd that I have an article on a fitness website with a discussion of the negatives of weighing yourself. After all, a large amount of my content is geared towards weight loss. But when I promote certain strategies, it is because I try and analyze all credible data, and come to an objective conclusion. Dogma (hopefully) doesn’t exist on this website, and if it does, I would want you to call me out on it.
Anyway, conflicting views as to the helpfulness or harmfulness of self-weighing for the control of body weight have been presented in the fields of obesity and eating disorders (1). Fortunately, there is actually quite a bit of research looking at this.
A 2015 literature review by Pacanowski and colleagues examined the overall state of the literature on this topic. The review looked at twenty different published articles examining self-weighing and psychological outcomes. The results from these articles were mixed. One of the randomized control trials showed that over a two-week span, anxiety and depression symptoms actually increased in the group that weighed themselves vs the non-weighing group (1).
A cohort study from 2013 showed that women with anorexia nervosa experienced negative psychological effects from frequently being required to weigh themselves. Though it should be noted, this study required the participants to weigh themselves multiple times daily, a frequency that may be too often for most (12).
There were two other published works that showed negative effects on mood state of frequent self weighing - both cross-sectional studies. The first found that women, but not men, had increased depressive symptoms when required to weigh themselves regularly. The study also concluded that more frequent self weighing was also associated with weight control behaviors that were both positive and negative (13). In the final cross-sectional study, weighing more frequently increased depressive symptoms in most groups, with the exception of non-overweight girls. However, these cross-sectional study designs do not allow for the determination of temporality of relationships or causality (1).
50% of the studies looked at in this literature review showed no relationship between self weighing (or self weighing frequency) and mood state. This group included three randomized control trials and two population surveys. All three of these RCTs found no relationship between increased weighing frequencies and anxiety, depression, or mood. The population based surveys also found no significant relationship as well (1).
One intervention actually found a positive relationship between frequency of self weighing and mood state. In this 2007 randomized control trial, participants were those who had already lost weight, and were then enrolled in a program to prevent weight regain. The study reported that more frequent self weighing was associated with less depressive symptoms (1).
The effects of frequent self weighing on self esteem / body image, and disordered eating were also assessed. Some of the scholarly sources found that there was a negative relationship between self esteem / body image and weighing frequency, while others found no relationship. Two studies actually found a positive relationship between self weighing frequency and body image. The literature review noted, quite clearly, that there were a concerning number of studies that found self esteem was negatively impacted by weighing frequency (1).
Regarding disordered eating, the literature review identified six studies with evidence that frequent self weighing was correlated with disordered eating symptoms. Three found no relationship. Four found a positive relationship, meaning that weighing more frequently was correlated to improved eating behaviors (1). It seems that while there is a large amount of data that shows disordered eating symptoms are correlated with frequent self weighing, there is also a lot of data that contradicts this.
What can we make out of all of this? There is much conflicting data on how frequently weighing yourself impacts psychology. Further research is probably warranted in this area.
Strategies For Self Weighing
While I absolutely do not encourage people to obsess over weighing themselves, it is not simply as easy as to just say “don’t be afraid of the scale”. I weigh myself regularly, often every day. Whenever I step on the scale, I look at it as objective data. Data should be taken, tracked, and then assessed later. You should never make knee-jerk changes to your diet, training, or physical activity based on day-to-day weight changes. Doing so is actually inconsistent with the goal of weight-loss. I think the first step towards improving your relationship with the scale is to simply realize that this is a process that takes time.
Another step is education. I have already said it in this article, but please consider reading my previous article about what causes weight fluctuations. When you weigh yourself daily, it is assured from the get-go that some days will be up, and some will be down. But that is okay. It is all part of the process that leads to long-term, sustainable weight loss. Don’t be afraid of the scale. It is a tool, and it will help you. Understanding why your weight goes up and down can help remove some of the stress when it happens. We often fear the unknown.
I've regularly recommended that clients use a strategy called “weekly average weight”. To do this, take your average weight from all measured weigh-ins from an entire week. Then, compare it to your average weight from all weigh-ins in the next week. If the number went down, you've made progress. This averaging of numbers places less importance on any single weight number and instead emphasizes looking at long-term weight trends that are indicative of health and wellness. The longer the time period that you weigh yourself over, the more accurate your picture becomes.
Self weighing has a lot of opportunities to go wrong, but also good evidence for its effectiveness in weight loss. So how should we implement it? I believe it should be individualized.
There were a few common threads gleaned from my research into the negative psychological effects of frequent self weighing. First of all, those with a higher likelihood of having an eating or mental disorder seem to be negatively affected by extremely frequent weigh-ins (i.e. more than once per day). Someone who may fall into this category might be outside the scope of practice of a personal trainer. If you are a coach, having a good referral network of physical and mental healthcare providers, so that you may refer to someone else when you are outside your scope of practice, is important. If you are an individual, consider seeking help if you are having trouble with a weight issue, and the scale is an undue cause of stress. Ignoring the problem by never weighing yourself will likely not help.
Young people seem to be more adversely affected by the potential psychological drawbacks of frequent self weighing. Many of the studies that noted negative effects were done on adolescents under the age of 18. Therefore, it is my opinion that in many cases, weight-loss interventions may be inappropriate for young children. Always consult the child’s doctor or healthcare professional before making a decision here.
Some of the research also points to women being more adversely affected by frequent self weighing than men. Specifically, women who are in the overweight range seem to have their self esteem heavily impacted by frequently weighing themselves, while those who are in the normal weight range seem to do fine with this. Men do not seem to have their self esteem as negatively effected (1).
There is one group, however, for whom frequent self weighing seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Individuals who voluntarily participate in a weight loss or fitness program. These people were actually the ones most likely to have positive psychological experiences related to frequent self weighing (1). Knowing what we know about weight loss outcomes, it would seem prudent to recommend frequent weighing to these individuals who voluntarily want to change their weight in order to improve health.
And this is important - emphasize health - not numbers. Yes, a scale can be a tool used to track one marker of health. But it will fluctuate, and not always in the direction that you like. Track progress over time, individualize your approach, don’t be afraid to refer to a professional, and if something is giving you undue amounts of stress - don't be afraid to change it. Weight loss is a long term game. And you will succeed best with a long term mindset.
Did I answer the questions you had when clicking on this article? If not, leave a comment below or shoot me an email at Jonnyreps@gmail.com.