Signs You’re Getting Fitter—Even If the Scale Hasn’t Budged
There are many signs you’re becoming more fit. Weight loss is not necessarily one of them.
Medically reviewed by Ana Maria Kausel, MD
You’ve been doing everything you believe is right to become fitter: loading up on greens, lifting weights, taking walks. But whenever you step on the scale, the same digits stare back at you or the number is higher than it was the last time.
Truth bomb: The scale only tells you what your relationship is to gravity. It does not determine your fitness level. There are many other ways to gauge your progress.
When you’re working out, there are all kinds of chemical and mechanical processes and changes going on inside your body. As you get fitter, a few subtle mind-body clues begin to surface—you just need to notice and tap into them.
Read on to learn what to look for. If you can check any of the boxes below, it’s a safe bet you’re on the right track (even if the scale claims otherwise).
Your Body Is Stronger
Are you noticing that you’re reaching for heavier weights or more resistance during your workouts? Or maybe you’ve noticed you can chase after your kids and not be so tired or carry a full laundry basket upstairs without having to stop at the top to catch your breath.
Performing resistance training can contribute to muscle growth and strength. If you’re just starting out with exercise—or adding new exercises into your routine—you will most likely make gains in strength more quickly than people who have worked out longer or haven’t changed up their routine, according to a large 2018 review of the literature published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.
Study authors reported a fast initial increase in muscular strength when a person is learning a new exercise. Some people will feel stronger in just 2-4 weeks. For others, depending on their muscle fiber makeup, other genetic qualities, and the quality of their workouts, results in strength are generally seen in 8-12 weeks, according to the researchers.
Skeletal muscles aren’t the only muscles that get stronger with exercise. Cardio strengthens the heart muscle and the lungs. One way to tell if your heart and lungs are strengthening is with your resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate recovery (HRR).
While your true RHR is taken after you’ve been lying down (like first thing in the morning before you get up), you can take a resting heart rate before you work out; this is the target heart rate—your HRR—you want it to come back down to following your workout.
According to the same study in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, people in better cardiovascular condition have lower peak heart rates (your heart rate during exercise), and their heart rates more quickly come down to their RHR compared to people who are not as cardiovascularly fit. This is because as the heart gets stronger, it can pump more blood out with each contraction, which means it doesn’t have to beat as quickly.
You’re Happier and Less Stressed
Many studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between physical activity and mental health. In a 2021 review of the literature, published in the journal Annual Review of Medicine, researchers combed through approximately 100 studies and found that exercise protects against getting depression and anxiety.
They also found that these benefits appear to be dose-dependent—the benefits increased with more exercise.
For example, the studies they looked at revealed that people with low or moderate fitness levels have a 47% and 23% greater risk of developing mental health issues compared to highly fit individuals. And both aerobic and resistance training seem to have positive benefits for mental health.
You Feel More Rested
“Exercise has been proven to not only boost your daytime energy, but your sleep quality, too,” said Marci Goolsby, MD, a physician in the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
In a 2017 literature review published in the journal Advances in Preventative Medicine, researchers found that while there are mixed results regarding the type and timing of exercise, there seems to be little doubt that, in general, exercise helps you get a better night’s rest.
And this applies to more immediate results, like exercise benefiting the following night’s sleep, as well as long-term improvements in sleep.
While some studies in the review showed that exercising too close to bedtime kept people up, other studies show that this is not the case. The key, then, is to figure out what works best for you and your lifestyle.
Wondering what type of exercise will help you sleep best? According to these study authors, the research shows that any type of exercise has the potential to help, from resistance training to aerobic exercise to mind-body exercises, like tai chi and yoga—all have been shown to improve sleep quality.
If you’re not sure what your sleep quality is like, try using a sleep tracker device for a few weeks. “It can give you some general feedback,” said Dr. Goolsby, such as how long it takes you to drift off, and how long (roughly) you spend in REM sleep—the deepest stage of sleep, which is necessary to feel well-rested.
You’re Mentally Sharper
Many studies show the benefits of regular physical activity on brain health—both healthy brains and diseased brains.
A 2018 review of the literature published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that many structural and chemical changes happen in the brain due to exercise. The changes in the nervous system, in which the brain is a major player, are from neuroplasticity—the addition of new nerve cells, neural connections, and nerve pathways.
The study authors cite studies that show that there are structural changes in the brain with exercise and that the volume of grey matter in the brain increases. Yes, exercise can make your brain bigger.
With exercise also comes chemical changes in the brain that increase blood flow to the brain, improve the health of the blood vessels in the brain, and allow more glucose to enter the brain (glucose is the brain’s preferred source of energy).
All this adds up, said the study authors, to improve cognitive function, including improvement in memory, focus, and academic achievement, as well as prevention of cognitive decline with age.
Your Jeans Fit Differently
As your fitness improves, your body shape may change some due to losing fat and gaining muscle. “Focusing on how your clothing feels is a good gauge for most people, as long as you recognize that sizing is a messed up mind game and are able to not worry about that,” said Kourtney Thomas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in St. Louis.
And while your pants may get looser in some areas, you may fill them out more in others. This is what happened to Dr. Goolsby each time she started a new workout. “If I start doing Spin, for example, all of a sudden I’m starting to notice my pants feel a bit tighter as I’m building my quads. It’s not because I’m gaining weight; I’m putting on muscle.”
If your jeans loosen up around the waist, this could indicate you’re losing fat in your abdominal area. This is a good thing, as higher amounts of abdominal fat have been correlated with higher disease risk.
In a 2020 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers looked at whether a decreasing waist circumference correlated with less abdominal fat in individuals—and whether exercise plays a role in the reduction of fat from the waist.
Their results suggest that exercise does help reduce both abdominal fat and waist circumference. And that increasing either amount and/or intensity of exercise can increase the amount of abdominal fat that’s burned up.
Should You Toss Your Scale?
The number on the scale is not worth fixating on—but that doesn’t mean weighing yourself is a complete waste for some people, said May Tom, RD, an in-house dietitian at Cal-a-Vie Health Spa in Vista, California. “Having objective data to look at can help move people toward change,” said Tom.
And while a 2015 study published in the Journal of Obesity claimed that stepping on the scale every day helped to keep study participants on track toward weight loss, this can be a bit over the top for many. This study was also only done for two years, so true long-term weight loss wasn’t proven. It also mentions that daily weighing seemed to work better for males than females.
Another 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior might have some clues as to why frequent weighing doesn’t work for many, especially women.
Researchers in this study found that women who frequently self-weighed had lower self-esteem, decreased body satisfaction, increases in weight concern, and increased rates of depression.
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders suggested that frequently stepping on a scale negatively affects mood and promotes disordered eating behaviors and thoughts.
And ironically, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggested that adults who frequently weighed themselves had greater weight gain than those who don’t bother with stepping on the scale as much.
Some research also suggests that physical activity, even without weight loss, improves health. For example, a 2021 study published in the journal iScience suggests that increasing physical activity without weight loss decreases the chances of dying from anything by about 15-50% and decreases the chances of dying from or having heart disease by about 15-40%.
So whether or not you should step on the scale will require first weighing the pros and cons of doing so for you. How does it make you feel when you step onto it? Do you notice a change in your mood, thoughts, and behavior when you use the scale?
Should you choose to use the scale, how often should you weigh in? According to Tom, once a week at most. “That’s my usual recommendation if people feel like [the scale] keeps them on track and accountable,” explained Tom. “Any more than that and you can become frustrated if you don’t see progress.”
Keep in mind, too, that the scale does not show you how much fat you’ve lost or muscle you’ve gained. That’s why finding other ways to gauge your progress is important—ones that make you feel good and move you closer to being able to participate in life at the level you desire.
Ditch the ones that make you feel defeated and mess with your head.