7: Goals & Measuring Progress

Setting goals and measuring progress is an important part of the dieting process, maybe just as important as eating well and exercising, because if you do it correctly it can keep you on your diet through the thick and thin.

We’re going to assume you are versed in what you need to do in order to lose weight, covered in Sections 2-4. You know how many pounds you would like to lose safely over what realistic period of time. Let’s start by putting an example goal down on paper: I will lose 20 pounds in sixty days, starting January 1st and ending March 1st.  Now put that paper up on the fridge or somewhere else where you can see it. This is your long-range goal. Most people don’t even get this far, their goal is something along the lines of “I will lose weight” or “I will stay on a diet.” Imagine anything in the world getting built or being accomplished with such an amorphous goal. And remember this great quote:

“You must have long-range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short-range failures.” –Charles C. Noble

And every dieter faces so many short-term failures it’s amazing anyone manages to stick with it even with a long-range goal. However, most short-term failures while dieting are not failures. The “failure” is in our minds. This is why keeping track of your progress in a variety of different ways can put a spin on just about any failure you might think you have encountered.

Take a look at my weight loss progress over a random five week period in 2009:

7/15/09
7/22/09
7/28/09
8/11/09
8/13/09
8/19/09
Weight229220220218214214

What would you think if in the first seven days of your diet, you lost nine pounds, then for fourteen more days you didn’t lose one pound? Would you second guess your diet, would you begin to tweak it? How many people would say “It’s ain’t working.” Then in week four I lose just two more pounds. Nine pounds in one week, and then two pounds in three! Well, on paper, it looks like I’m doing something wrong. (I didn’t have space to show it on the graph, but by week seven I gain four pounds!)

Now let’s take a look at a broader spectrum of statistics I kept during this time.

7/15/097/22/097/28/098/11/098/13/098/19/09
Weight (pounds)229220220218214214
Body Mass Index29.528.328.328.0 27.527.5
Waist-to-Height ratio0.550.550.550.520.510.51
Percent Body Fat26.70%26.30%26.30%23.2%21.3%20.6
Lean Body Mass167.8162.2162.2167.5168.5169.9
Fat Body Mass61.257.857.850.545.244.1
Waist, navel41"40.6"40.6"38.6"37.8"37.4
Waist, belt38.5"38.2"39"37.8"37.8"37.4"
Neck15.5"15.4"15.4"15.4"15.75"15.75"
Wrist7.5"7.7"7.7"7.4"7.3"7.3"
Bicep16"15.6"15.95"15.95"15.7"15.7"
Thigh25"24.83"24.4"24"24"24.4"
Caliper Belly Button30mm26mm23mm20mm18mm16mm
Belt Hole244566

With so many statistics, it’s going to be hard to not find something positive in my efforts, regardless of the short-term “failure” of losing very little, or even no, scale weight. If you’re eating correctly and exercising, you will lose weight; it’s short sighted to catalog your progress with just a scale. In the above examples, I can see positive change in my waist, lean body mass, belly button fat, belt holes, and more. So to say it wasn’t working would not be logical. I just need to have patience.

I recommend taking as many stats as you can once a week in order to find the positive effects of your effort. Try and do this on the same day, same time. (I do this the morning of my free day). Take progress photos at the same time if you can. You can sometimes see changes in a pic that stats can’t reveal. I only weigh myself once a week. Every single time you get on the scale you are opening yourself up emotionally to a short-term failure that can hamper your efforts. Why purposely sabotage my own efforts by increasing the chance I will encounter a short-term failure?

Keeping an exercise journal is just as important as keeping a journal on your physical progress.  Take another look at the last table. It seems that between 7/22/09 and 7/28/09 I didn’t lose a pound and even gained .7 inches on my waist! That sure seems like a failure, and not one other stat changed for the better as well. But if you then look at my exercise journal you can see that I increased my speed and distance during my HIIT aerobic training and I was able to lift more during my strength training.

So let me take you back to that time the summer of 2009 when I lost nine pounds in one week, then did not lose another pound for over two more weeks. These are the things that went through my head:

Week 1: The nine pound loss is great, but probably five pounds of that is water from going on low-sodium, low-carb diet and does not represent true fat loss.
Week 2: No more loss this week, so it seems that it was closer to nine pounds of water. I am putting my body through a lot of changes now, and this stress can hamper weight loss as well. Or, I might have put on a couple pounds of muscle, so if I did lose fat, the muscle gain is balancing my scale weight. I’m eating good, no cheating, and I’m hitting my workouts daily, so I’m on schedule.
Week 3: Ouch, another full week without a loss of a pound. My body should be used to the diet now and it should not be stressed, but again some muscle gain could be hiding the weight loss on the scale. And wow, I even gained over half an inch on my waist. I see that I have eaten perfectly over the last week and exercised six days, so technically this all should be working. So let’s check some other stats. Ok, I am able to lift more in the gym than I did last week, and certainly more than week one. And the distances I am pushing myself aerobically are getting longer. So I am getting stronger and faster–the diet is working. And on top of this, I can say that my sleep patterns are improved, my moods are better, my skin looks better than it has in years (people have even commented on it) my eyes seem brighter and the dark circles under my eyes are diminished. So it seems all is going as planned.

Going as planned? But I’m not losing weight, isn’t that the plan?

Weight loss is a lifestyle change, it’s not just about shedding fat. Take the time to take to heart the wonderful peripheral effects that also arise from your effort, even if the scale does not move.

You can keep a journal or use a program like Excel to track your progress, either way works great, and when you need it most, you will find some hidden strength in just a few simple figures.