The last time Vanessa Cavanaugh stepped on the scale at her gym, it didn’t go well. “I was miserable because it was the highest number I’ve ever seen,” says Cavanaugh, who works as a quality assurance engineer in Brooklyn. The number seemed a little strange, as she was in great shape. “I also was kickboxing twice a week and doing strength training,” she says.
Take a tour of a standard gym, and you’ll likely find a scale. “Every gym I’ve either been to or worked for has scales—usually in the locker room and out in the fitness area,” says Taylor Long, a personal trainer in North Carolina who’s worked in the industry for 10 years. Big, corporate gyms often suggest that trainers use them as part of their work with clients, Long says, taking down weight on the client’s first day and throughout their time with the trainer. Even if you’re not working with a trainer, you might be tempted to weigh in— just to see if you’re “making progress.”
But, as America opens back up, and many of us return to routines of exercising in shared spaces—perhaps with a few extra quarantine pounds in tow—I would like to propose that scales do not have a place in gyms at all.
For starters, the idea that there’s a linear connection between weight loss and fitness is outdated. “At best, only 20 percent of a person’s modifiable weight is likely modifiable by way of exercise,” says Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa who specializes in nutrition and weight loss–related topics. You might even discover that after two months of diligent gym work, you’ve gained weight rather than lost; bodies often respond to regular workouts by increasing muscle mass, which is denser than fat. Put plainly: Exercise is not a good weight loss tool. Hopping on the scale as part of a workout routine can breed frustration, as it did for Cavanaugh. “It’s a jarring thing to equate your worth with a number on a scale when it’s not indicative of progress in other ways,” she explains.
When gyms have scales, they reinforce the mostly incorrect belief that exercise will affect your weight and distract gymgoers from the copious benefits they’re racking up instead. Even if you’re not losing weight, you might be working toward strong-looking shoulders or better posture. Exercise improves cardiac health, reduces the risk of cancer, and ameliorates anxiety and depression. It improves brain function, with one study calling it “a panacea for aging well.” It can even help people with erectile dysfunction.
In a world already awash with connections between weight, fitness, and worth, why enforce them further?
At worst, that scale in the locker room could reinforce unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns, especially in adolescents, women, and other people prone to eating disorders. A 2018 study of 902 college students found that frequent self-weighing was associated with eating disorders and calorie counting, while intuitive eating (an approach to eating that focuses on bodily signals of hunger and fullness instead of rules about calorie consumption) was linked to healthier eating habits and less self-weighing. And a 2015 meta-review found that self-weighing had a negative impact on self-esteem, affect, and eating behaviors. I personally can’t look at the number on a scale, as it provokes an obsession with my weight that I’ve been battling for years.
For people with eating disorders, “having a set of them stuck in the middle of the gym is a disaster,” says Elizabeth Evans, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Newcastle University in England whose research focuses on body image, weight, and eating disorders.
Removing scales from the gym wouldn’t mean getting rid of all scales. For people with eating disorders, experts do not recommend a total avoidance of scales; eventually, my own aim is to get to the point where I can step on a scale, at a gym or elsewhere, and feel comfortable with whatever number it shows me. But in the meantime, seeing a scale in a gym locker room would make me more anxious and depressed, which is the exact opposite effect I could be getting from the exercise itself. And in a world already awash with connections between weight, fitness, and worth, why enforce them further? Yes, scales themselves can be a useful tool if weight monitoring and weight loss, for whatever reason, are personal goals. Plenty of research, such as this 2013 study, shows that people in weight loss intervention trials that include hopping on a scale regularly lose more weight than control groups. But this self-weighing is typically done as part of an intervention: Participants receive education and feedback about their diets, their exercise level, and their overall progress.
“Scales are also really only helpful if you use them at the same time each day under similar conditions,” says Libby Richards, an associate professor at the Purdue University School of Nursing who studies interpersonal and environmental influences on physical activity. “If you weigh yourself first thing in the morning one day and then in the evening the next time, your weight will likely be higher but that doesn’t really mean you have gained weight.” A gym scale might not even be trustworthy, as overuse and age can make them less accurate. Yes, there are some very specific contexts in which having a scale at a workout space can be useful: For athletes for whom their weight is an integral aspect of their performance or competitive level, like boxers and wrestlers, it’s reasonable for there to be a scale near their workout equipment. Usually, though, athletes on that level go to special gyms for their specific disciplines and won’t be doing pre-competition weigh-ins at your local 24 Hour Fitness. “I’m not sure that the scale needs to be at the gym,” says Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who researches weight management and eating disorders. “Who’s that really benefiting?”
Gyms stand to benefit from having scales, as it reinforces the idea that they (and their monthly fees) can help with something so many of us desperately want: to lose weight. It’s not likely that standard, corporate gyms are going to shed their scales anytime soon. But some gyms and exercise studios are waking up to the outdated association between weight loss, exercise, and fitness. Four New York City fitness studios told me they don’t keep scales in their facilities because it can create an unhealthy atmosphere. “Bringing a scale into the studio would undoubtedly create stress for some people, rather than alleviate it, so it’s really a no-brainer,” says Samantha Scupp, owner of Heatwise, a hot yoga studio in Brooklyn, about why her studio doesn’t have scales. “While our clients might be using hot yoga as part of their weight loss regimen, it’s not something we talk about, because we’re really focused on the therapeutic aspects of the experience and how it relates to mental health.”
For her part, Long, the North Carolina–based personal trainer, allows her clients to opt out of measurement taking if they’re not comfortable with it. “I know from personal experience how relying on the scale can be detrimental to one’s mental health and absolutely lead to eating disorders,” she says. “I’ve had a handful of clients who did want to weigh in often, and I did my best to remind them that there are better ways to measure your progress.” If gyms do want to keep scales around, perhaps they should come with a disclaimer. “I’d certainly encourage gyms to put up signs stating that scales measure the gravitational pull of the Earth at a given moment in time, and do not measure health, happiness, success, effort, or self-worth,” says Freedhoff.
But gymgoers looking to assess their progress will be better served by concentrating on what they’re actually accomplishing on the gym floor. “I’ve found that focusing on strength and functionality helps people have a more positive outlook on their bodies,” says Linnea Gregg, a personal trainer in New York. Evans says heart rate monitors can be a decent way to evaluate exercise gains. But she’s not really a fan of most metrics-taking devices at all, as they “can suck a lot of the intrinsic pleasure out of using our bodies to be active.” Even though she says she recognizes it’s a bit of a cliche, regularly checking in with your mood can be a great way to keep track of how exercising is actually affecting your well-being, and life.