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If you are just starting out with exercise and weight-loss goals, it seems obvious how to measure: step on the scale — but body weight is the least interesting part of the story. It doesn’t tell you how much of that is “extra” — fat you can afford to lose — or how much is the meal you just had or extra water you may be carrying. And it definitely doesn’t tell you how healthy your heart and lungs are, how far you can walk or run (or how much you can lift), or how well your body is managing energy from food. It can’t even tell you how your pants will fit.

So what’s better? There are lots of ways to measure progress, and they depend on your goals. Although many of us just want to “weigh less,” few of us would give up our muscles or our ability to get around just for a number on the scale. As you think more about your goals, you may find that body weight doesn’t really figure. Take a look at some of tests people use for fitness, and think about how they might fit in with different kinds of goals.

Accomplishment goals: Running a particular distance, lifting a particular weight (or percentage — or multiple! — of your body weight), doing 20 pullups — or just one! This is the kind of goal you see on people’s “bucket lists” — a milestone achievement. As with weight, it helps to have a plan for when you reach the goal, but there are lots of great options for new accomplishments to explore!

Health goals: Your doctor may have counseled you about blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol, and recommended food and exercise changes. Measurements like these are great goals because they are best attained with consistent attention to regular activity and thoughtful eating choices, and they are generally measured at long enough intervals that you can definitely see a change.

Fitness testing: This is a murkier area, because some popular tests (like the cycle ergometer test, designed to estimate a factor called VO2 max) measure things that, for some people, don’t change much. But there are a lot of other fitness tests — based on flexibility, distance covered in a particular time, or repetitions of movements (some with weight) — that emphasize performance, which can improve even when other types of fitness measurements stay the same.

Are you working on a non-body weight goal?

Photo of conceptual artist Jonathan Keats offering “personalized units of measure” at an exhibition in 2005.

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