The Numbers that Really Help You Slim Down

Active women love numbers, but we don't always like the ones on the scale. Luckily, there's a better way to track weight-loss progress. Here's how to use an entirely different set of digits to get fitter, and leaner--and shed those extra pounds.

Many women track weight loss progress by stepping on the bathroom scale, but sometimes--irritatingly enough--that number barely budges. On the bright side, there are plenty of other stats out there that can give us a more complete picture of our overall health and help us lose weight. By tracking numbers that gauge changes in our fitness level, heart health, nutrition habits, and body measurements, you'll not only slim down, but also take your fitness to the next level. So forget about pounds for a while and kick-start your weight loss by following these numbers instead.

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Keeping tabs on your body composition can help you assess your weight-loss and fitness progress in a way that the scale (which measures only pounds) can't duplicate. These numbers will help you focus on losing fat, gaining muscle, and getting leaner--the best indicators of improved health and fitness.

Body Fat Many active women get frustrated when they step on the scale after weeks of exercising only to discover they're the same weight. What they're forgetting is that they very likely have gained muscle and lost body fat--arguably a more positive health change than losing pounds. You can use inexpensive calipers like those from AccuMeasure ( to track body-fat changes. Take the measurement about one inch above your right hip. The calipers come with a chart you can then use to find your body-fat percentage. Levels for fit athletes range from about five percent to 17 percent for men and 13 percent to 24 percent for women.

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Tape Measurements Taking your waist, hip, and thigh measurements on a weekly basis will help you quantify exactly how many inches you've lost. And a smaller waist is not only a marker of weight loss but also decreased cancer risk; the American Institute for Cancer Research notes that men are at a higher risk of cancer when their waist is 40 inches or larger; for women, the number is 35.

Belt Holes Counting the extra belt holes you cinch up is an easy way to get daily feedback on your weight. "It was always a minor triumph when I realized my usual belt hole wasn't working anymore," says Jason Logue, a 36-year-old runner and attorney from Pittsburgh. In fact, many other runners interviewed for this article first noticed their progress when they had to pull their belts tighter--or buy a smaller one.

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Holy Grail Pants Take that old pair of jeans you wore when you were at your desired weight and try them on periodically. Once they fit, you'll know you're at a healthy weight. Shanti Sosienski, author of Women Who Run, followed a similar approach. The Idaho-based runner used clothing sizes to measure progress. She went from a size 14 to a size eight-and dropped 15 pounds along the way.

Okay, this isn't exactly a measurement, but it is a sign your hard work is paying off. Logue didn't realize how much he'd lost until friends started to tease him. "They called me David Byrne, after the Talking Heads singer with baggy suits," he says with a laugh. He bought new suits, new belts--and inspired a few friends to shed their extra pounds.

The Golden Rules of Weight Loss

Tracking numbers that assess your cardiovascular condition will give you a clear picture of your overall fitness. The stronger your heart, the harder you can exercise. And the harder you can exercise, the more calories you'll burn during your workouts. But there's another reason to monitor your heart health. As you become fitter, your body will build more muscle. A pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat, so increasing your muscle mass allows you to burn more calories at rest. You can easily measure all of these numbers with a heart-rate monitor. In some cases, the rate at which the numbers change over time matters more than the actual figures.

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Resting Heart Rate (RHR) Once a week, take your pulse for one minute first thing in the morning the day after a rest day. Compare the number weekly. You'll start to see trends (for example, a slightly higher RHR may indicate you're dehydrated). If your resting heart rate gradually decreases over time, it means you're getting fitter.

One-Minute Recovery Rate
Tracking how quickly your heart rebounds from a serious physical effort can help you benchmark your cardiovascular strength. Chris Crowley, coauthor of the Younger Next Year book series (written with Henry S. Lodge, M.D.), explains: "It's a common-sense correlation between your recovery rate and what kind of shape you're in." The faster your heart recovers, the fitter you are. To measure yours, warm up thoroughly, then workout hard for one to two minutes. Stop and watch your heart rate monitor. As soon as your rate drops one beat, start timing. After 60 seconds, see how many beats per minute it has dropped. In general, a one-minute recovery rate in the 30s is good and 40s is great. The bigger the number, the fitter you are.

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Body Fat Measured On Scales Your hydration level and even the room temperature can affect the accuracy of these devices. Calipers or even the "Holy Grail Pants" test will give you a solid idea of your progress for less money and fewer headaches.

Your Max Heart Rate Compared to Anyone Else's
It doesn't matter if your max is 180 and your buddy's is 200. Everyone is different. Your max is determined mostly by age and genetics--not by how hard you train.

Body Mass Index
Healthy BMI ranges are quite large (a 5'4" woman could weigh anywhere from108 to 145 pounds and still be in an "acceptable" range), so it's only useful if you're significantly over--or underweight. And the formula doesn't hold up with very muscular athletes. A 5'10" 209-pound man, for example, with just 10 percent body fat is actually considered overweight by BMI standards.

Find your BMI with our Body Fat Calculator

--By M. Nicole Nazzaro, Runner's World

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