I’ve been an avid follower of Joe ‘The Body Coach’ Wicks for sometime now. I think his ‘Lean in 15’ videos are brilliantly funny, and quite often offer fabulous recipes that are both healthy and delicious. So when I heard he was bringing out a new TV show, I was intrigued to see how he would fare.
On the whole I enjoyed his show - like me, he’s anti-diet, and an advocate of High Intensity Interval Training. During the show he helped several people to lower their body fat percentage and increase their overall health which is always fantastic to see.
His passion for helping people shines through like a beacon - it’s infectious! I admire his work ethic, and I applaud his simple approach.
However, there is one view that Joe holds that I just cannot get on board with. It has to do with what he refers to on the show as the ‘sad step’.
The ‘sad step’ is - you guessed it - the bathroom scales. In a post entitled, ‘Stay off the sad step: why it's time to stop weighing yourself on the scales’ (1), Joe refers to scales as motivation killers, professing that they almost always leave you feeling disappointed.
Joe makes some big claims in this article. However, the truth behind many of them, in my opinion, is a little more complex than he lets on.
Joe’s Claim: “It’s all about gaining lean muscle, so the number on the scales is completely irrelevant”
The Truth: Unless you are a bodybuilder, or already at a healthy weight, it is very unlikely that you are simply ‘gaining muscle’ and ‘burning fat’ at the correct rate if the scales aren’t changing. Doing this takes MONTHS of dedicated exercise and eating the right things. Under optimal conditions, you can only expect to gain 1-2 pounds of muscle per month (2). Therefore, if your weight stays stable over the course of a month, you will have lost a maximum of 1-2 pounds of fat (I say maximum because some of this is likely to be water loss). Again, this is fine if your total body fat is already low. But if it’s not, you are missing out on some big opportunities for fat loss.
We are capable of losing 1-2 pounds of fat per week on a healthy, balanced diet (3) - that equals 4-8 pounds per month. Therefore, if we are storing too much fat, taking into consideration how much muscle we can hope to gain and fat we can hope to lose we should be aiming to lose between 2-7 pounds per month overall. If we aren’t measuring our weight then how will we know we are succeeding?
Joe’s Claim: “When you consume carbohydrates they are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen and more glycogen means more water in the body which can equal outrageous gains on the scales”
The Truth: As a bare fact this is true, however for me it misses an important point.
Carbohydrate heavy foods such as pasta and bread will trigger glycogen to be stored. 3-4 grams of water will bind to every gram of glycogen, therefore tripling or even quadrupling the weight stored (4).
Therefore, if you usually eat very healthily, avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates, consuming any large quantity of quick release carbohydrates will have a big impact on your total body weight. However, after a few days back on the right course, your weight should return to normal.
This sort of thing can be very frustrating. Nobody wants to step on the scales and realise they’ve put on 5 pounds in a week. It’s a horrible feeling. It happened to me just last week (see this post) - I gained 5 pounds in a week after having a somewhat ‘loose’ weekend nutrition wise (cake, curry, wine - you name it!). But, 3 days later, every single one of those extra pounds was gone.
The point I think Joe misses is the value of education. The trick for me last week was that I knew what was happening. I expected the scales to show an increase (although, I must admit, 5 pounds was a bit of a shocker!). And because I knew what was going on, I used my knowledge to get myself back on track. I didn’t panic, I didn’t throw in the towel - I simply picked myself up, dusted myself off and carried on.
If I had missed this opportunity to take stock of my actions, I might have carried on down the wrong path. It’s so easy to do this - you know in your mind you’ve been ‘bad’, and you’re too scared to face the truth by getting on the scales. Therefore, you decide to give up completely, and before you know it you’ve gained everything you’ve lost.
Joe’s Claim: “The sad step is the worst measure of success you can possible get and it’s time you threw them out the window”
The Truth: Weighing yourself on a regular basis, even daily, is scientifically proven to support weight loss. For example, a 2 year study at Cornell University found that frequently weighing yourself and keeping track of your progress is effective for both losing weight and keeping it off (5). 162 participants were separated into an ‘intervention group’ and a ‘control group’. Both groups were given the target of losing 10% of their body weight in one year, in any way they wanted. The ‘intervention group’ was told to weigh themselves every morning and track their results, whereas the ‘control group’ were not provided with scales or asked to weigh themselves.
The study found that almost 29% of the ‘intervention group’ lost at least 5% of their weight during the year compared with only 11% of the ‘control group’.
The study does not go on to suggest the causation of the different levels of success. But if you think about it logically, having to face the scales on a regular basis is one heck of a motivator. You know you are going to have to face the consequences of your behaviour, good or bad, each time you step on the scale. And no one wants to be faced with a negative result this often, therefore you are more likely to exhibit good behaviours consistently.
So, what should we be measuring?
In his blog post, Joe lists the things that scales cannot measure:
- Your fitness levels
- Your energy levels
- Your strength
- Changes in your body composition
- Your sense of achievement
- Your confidence
- Your happiness
He is absolutely right about this. Weighing yourself should not be the only indicator you use to measure your success, but as I explained above it plays an important and specific role.
There are two key methods to evaluate progress, which can be divided into ‘lead’ and ‘lag’. Lag measures describe what you are ultimately trying to achieve. For example, if you want to lose weight and drop a few dress sizes, your lag measures are your body weight and your size in inches or centimeters. Lag measures play an important role, as they are the ultimate measure of success - the pinnacle of what you are striving for. However, they have their limitations - when you receive the data from these measures, the behaviours that led to them are already in the past and it’s too late to change what you’ve done.
That’s why we need to consider lead indicators as ultimately more important during your journey towards success. Lead measures look directly at the behaviours which drive you towards your lag measures. For example, the number of days you workout per week, or the food you choose to eat every day, which are things that you have direct control over. The better your performance in these areas, the more likely it is that your lag indicators will show improvement. If this is not the case, i.e. your lead measures don’t lead to progress in your lag measures, something needs to change. And if you aren’t tracking your lag measures, like your weight, you will miss the opportunity to set things straight.
Each of the indicators in Joe’s list is a lag measure - something that you are ultimately striving for. You absolutely need to take account of these, and set targets against the ones which resonate with you. Some of these are hard to measure directly, such as confidence or happiness, and in these cases I suggest keeping track of how you are feeling on a scale of 1-10. However, you also need to consider which lead measures you will use to track your progress. With happiness, for example, track how often are you setting aside time for the activities you enjoy.
In conclusion, I don’t believe there is anything sad about the ‘sad step’. Instead, I see it as the ‘opportunity step’, important alongside other equally valuable lead and lag measures. The data it conveys offers you the chance to take control of your body. When you commit to weighing yourself regularly, you commit to holding yourself to account.