How do you know if you’re making progress toward a health and fitness goal? To start, spend less time thinking and worrying about the scale. Instead, focus on these 7 better progress indicators.
I've been working with a new nutrition client, Tom, for about 3 days. During our first consultation, he handed me his food journal. It was full of low-calorie, low-protein, pre-portioned, packaged meals, and light on real whole food with flavor. For the last month, Tom had been experimenting with more prepackaged meals and, unfortunately, getting nowhere.
During our meeting, we agreed on the following plan: Two to three times next week, he'd swap his packaged lunch and eat a fresh salad topped with chicken, avocado, quinoa, and olive oil.
Quality Protein. Healthy Fat. Fiber. Real food.
The very next week I received a text from Tom: "I haven't felt this full and satisfied in over a month! And, I don't feel the urge to have something sweet at the end of my meals."
Now, you don't have to eat salads every day—this is merely an example of something that turned the light bulb on for Tom.
This was HUGE progress, even though Tom had yet to lose a single pound. As most experienced coaches and clients know:
The weight scale rarely marks the success along your path to a fitter, healthier body.
Our bodies are very complex. They change in many ways—oftentimes intangible and subtle ways. We feel and function differently, though we can’t always put a finger on it.
Long before we lose any weight, small signs of progress sprout and eventually flower.
Being a client trying to change your body is like being a gardener. You are seeking the first signs of life, trying not to be fooled by the feeling that nothing is happening because you can’t see the plant sprout just yet.
To achieve your body transformation and re-composition goals, you must know what small sprouts of progress look like. You must know how to track them for yourself if you’re trying to change and make a healthier lifestyle habitual. And as a coach, I need to help you detect the sprouts so you can then nurture them and let those babies grow.
Here are 7 better progress indicators than the number on the scale so you can stay focused on what really matters:
You feel full and satisfied after meals.
With your new nutrition plan, you're eating slowly. Choosing mostly fresh whole foods. Your plate is more balanced filled with protein, healthy fats, and fiber from whole fruits and veggies, legumes, and grains that nourish you, helping you feel satisfied. These foods signal to your gut and brain that 'It’s OK. We are safe and comfortable and fed. We can stop now.'
Let's also not overlook the water bottle you've been carrying around with you at work all day. You're leaving less room in your day for processed foods that rev up your cravings and never seem to fill you up.
Imagine feeling, for the first time in a while, “full” (not stuffed). Completely satisfied. Your gut and brain are calm. No panic. No restlessness or pacing near the pantry. You’re just done. Without any worry.
This is what you’ll start to experience once your nutrition (and exercise) plan is on track. It’s an early sign of progress that you can start to sense even before you lose any weight.
You have more overall energy.
Can you remember a time when you didn’t feel exhausted? Your alarm is your arch-nemesis. At 3 pm every day you need a caffeine and sugar hit to keep your eyes open, and by 8 pm you’re sinking into your chair in front of the TV. Your brain and body feel like mush.
Then, one day you wake up 5 minutes before your alarm and your eyes are actually open. Dare you say you feel... happy and energized? You no longer need 4 shots of espresso throughout the day just to cope with work. You even pay attention during your 3 pm meeting.
A good nutrition plan gives you constant, steady, all-day energy rather than a brief buzz and a crash. The feeling of having more energy can come from the nutrients in fresh, whole foods, which we need for our bodies and brains to work properly—like the B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, electrolytes and water, and calcium. If you get it right, you’ll start experiencing this over time. Sometimes even before the scale needle starts to move.
You're sleeping better, more consistently.
I've noticed that many don’t even know how tired and sleep-deprived they are because five hours of tossing and turning is their normal. There are many reasons for poor sleep: stress, aging, hormonal changes, being a new parent, getting too much light late at night, jet lag, and so on.
You may drink too much alcohol and caffeine. You may not get enough protein or enough vitamins and minerals to make the right neurotransmitters that affect sleep. You may also have disrupted hormones from stress and poor eating habits, all of which are important for good and restful sleep.
With your new way of eating, you’re getting enough good stuff to make the brain chemicals you need. Fresh, whole foods contain more fiber, protein, and healthy fats, which require more time and effort to digest than the refined carbohydrates that make up the majority of processed food. This keeps you satisfied longer, stabilizing your blood sugar, and various hormones needed for high-quality sleep.
You’ve switched to half-glasses of wine with dinner, and ditch the afternoon espresso. All of a sudden, you seem to wind down an hour before bedtime without a problem. You've started a new nighttime routine that includes some light reading or a guided meditation app before you go to sleep—instead of watching an episode (or 5) of Narcos. You're following your sleep ritual and pass out easier than ever.
Your clothes begin to feel a little looser (or tighter).
You reach into your closet for that one piece of clothing. You know, that one that almost never fits unless you're painfully dehydrated and do the whole suck-in-it and hold your breath thing. Wow, it fits. Not just unbutton-the-top-button-when-you-sit-down fits. But, like, really fits. It feels good and looks good.
Or maybe you’ve pulled out the one shirt that normally drapes over you like a beach towel. The T-shirt you can’t seem to fill out, the armholes with an extra arm to spare. Wow, it doesn’t fit (and that’s awesome). Your chest, arms, shoulders, and back are now muscular for it. Oh, and I forgot to mention that your shirt is loose in one area: your newly lean waist.
If you’re male, you may find your shoulders broadening, chest filling out, back wings fluttering like a majestic bald eagle, and you're getting some extra looks from all those squats and lunges you've been doing.
If you’re female, you may find that your scale weight goes up but your clothing size goes down. You too are getting some extra looks from all those deadlifts and squats that you've been enjoying in your workouts... and your waist is shrinking.
In addition to tuning in to how their clothes fit and taking a couple of mirror selfies (come on...we all do it), I'll always suggest clients use a tape measure to track the circumference of various body parts: hip, waist, thigh, shoulder girth, neck, etc.
You're in a better mood, more consistently.
"You're not yourself when you're hungry."
The phenomenon of “hangry” is real... very real. You may also not be your best self when you’re deprived of the nutrients your brain needs to keep you flying on an even emotional plane, without crashing into the water.
Improving our mental and emotional outlook with good nutrition can show up in surprising ways. I love when clients send me texts saying "I feel...
"better about my choices."
"like I am in control and not reacting to everything."
"like I have less 'brain fog' to deal with."
"happier and more positive."
"more open to trying new things."
These changes come from the experience of changing habits and from the nutrition itself. Our brains and bodies have the nutrients and chemical tools they need to do their jobs.
You're stronger, more powerful, and/or have more endurance.
Before the time you started your nutrition overhaul, workouts might feel like a struggle. Maybe you feel weak, uncoordinated, and/or slow. And boy are you sore afterward.
Then, ironically around the same time of your nutrition overhaul, you notice you're gradually feeling less sore. During your workouts, you’ve got a little pep in your step. Perhaps another set!? A month ago you did 10 reps and now you are breezing through 10 up to 15 or 16 reps. You may even be eyeing the next dumbbell up.
You can get more overall work done. You actually want to go on a run, bike ride, or lift some weights. You're fresher and recover faster.
Your "diet" feels more like a lifestyle.
Let's be honest... “Diets” are a chore. They’re another to-do that you force into your busy life, and another boring, strict, overly complicated task you can’t wait to drop.
Because diets are temporary—we quit as soon as it's done and we’re back where we started. Back “off the diet”. Back to treat-yo-self processed foods, never-ending hunger, frustration, and weight gain.
Real progress happens when you’re just living. You’re in a natural, normal-day rhythm that doesn’t feel like being “on” or “off” anything—when eating well stops being a thing and just starts being your daily life.
You naturally gravitate toward whole foods. You have a plan (and some back up plans because life is never according to plan). You don’t “mess up” anymore. You still eat the birthday cake, the Thanksgiving pie, the co-worker's birthday cookies, and maybe go ahead and have some Twizzlers while watching a movie. You don’t consider this “bad” anymore. They’re just an occasional part of enjoying life. You savor them and then go back to eating mostly fresh, whole foods like you always do. No problemo. No biggie!