11 Ways to Measure Your Progress on Your Fitness Journey

How’s your fitness journey going for you? If you aren’t measuring your progress, how do you know that your workouts are really working for you? “The point of taking measurements is to come up with meaningful data that you can act on and know whether or not the steps you’ve taken are helping you reach your goals,” says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director and master trainer with Saco Sport & Fitness, in Saco, Maine. “The assessments you choose should relate directly to your goals.” Here are 11 ways to track your progress. Some work better than others, so find one or two that work for you and get started.

1. Body Mass Index (BMI) - Body mass index measures body fat based on height and weight. Simply entering your weight and height into a BMI “computer” such as the one on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website places your results into one of four ranges: underweight (less than 18.5), normal weight (18.5 to 24.9), overweight (25 to 29.9) or obese (greater than 30). The drawbacks? “On average, older adults tend to have more body fat than younger adults with the same BMI, and women have more total body fat than men with the equivalent BMI,” says Nutting. “Muscular individuals also often show up with a high BMI due to increased muscle mass.” BMI works best for kids and overweight individuals.

2. The Bathroom Scale - The most obvious measuring tool may not be the best unless you pair it with another method. “The scale does not tell the whole story,” says Nutting. “Using other methods (skinfold calipers, ultrasound, underwater weighing, etc.) to measure body composition (fat versus lean) gives you a better idea of the changes you’re making in your body.” The scale best measures progress when it’s used alongside other tools.

3. Circumference Measurements - Measuring progress by tracking your waist, hips, abdominal girth and other body sites can substitute for body-fat measurements when used with bathroom-scale readouts, says Nutting. “It’s helpful, for example, if your weight hasn’t changed but you’ve dropped two pant sizes. It shows you’ve probably gained muscle and lost fat, so the scale shows a net loss of zero.” Good sites to measure include waist (circle around where you normally wear a belt), hips (at the widest part), thigh (at the widest part) and chest (at the fullest part).

4. Fitness Apps Apps that track are essentially journals, says Nutting. These create greater mindfulness about what you choose to track (food, exercise quantity, exercise frequency, etc.). “Tracking weight loss or having exercises available can make beginners successful if they utilize the tools in apps,” says Averill Kessee, certified trainer at At One Fitness in North Hollywood, California. “The only negative is not having your phone available due to a low battery or simply forgetting it. And you have to be very attentive if the app calls for you to input info.” Apps can also hold you accountable in between personal-training sessions, says Kessee. Popular ones for measuring progress include MyPlate (food and calorie tracker), MyFitnessPal (calorie tracker), MapMyRide (measures routes for cycling), and MapMyRun (tracks your run).

5. The Fit of Your Clothes - When you can’t button your favorite pair of pants, it’s easy to blame it on dryer shrinkage, but not if you’re being honest with yourself. “Personally, I like the clothing method,” says Irv Rubenstein, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and founder of STEPS Fitness, a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tennessee. “Find an item of clothing you’d like to fit into. If after a designated amount of time you find it easier to put on or it doesn’t look nearly as stretched out, then whatever you’re doing is working. “Clearly this does not calculate body fat, but as with the fancier so-called scientific tools available to the average fitness pro, it will give you a relative measure of success,” says Rubenstein.

6. Handheld Body-Fat Measurer - This device tracks body fat when an individual simply grips it with both hands. The device sends a gentle, electrical current through the body to register a reading. It may be simple to use, but it isn’t always very accurate, says Rubenstein. “Any bioelectric impedance tool is subject to a variety of sources of error. For one thing, they only send a current partially through the body and calculate, based on the rate of return of the signal and a bunch of formulae, how much fat got in the way of the current.” Rubenstein says their greatest value lies in measuring pre- and post-exercise or diet progress for any one person.

7. Body-Weight and Body-Fat Scales - Resembling a bathroom scale, body-fat-measuring scales you stand on have the same challenges as handheld models, says Rubenstein. Some claim to measure not only body fat and weight, but also hydration levels and bone by simply standing on them. Hydration levels and the timing of your last meal eaten can change the outcomes, but using the scale at the same time each day gives you a relative measure of your progress. “You must be hydrated -- water conducts a current better than fat -- and optimally you should not have eaten a large meal within a designated amount of time because the fluids in the foods and subsequently in the gut can distort the measurement of conductance,” says Rubenstein.

8. Body-Fat Calipers - Often used by personal trainers to measure a client’s body fat, it’s important to find someone skilled at operating it in order to get accurate measurements, says Rubenstein. “They’re costly -- around $200. The cheap, plastic ones will not give you good results from a scientific standpoint, but, again, if used consistently by the same measurement taker, you can get a relatively accurate idea of the success (or failure) of a program. “Body-fat measurements typically consist of “pinching” seven sites: chest, abdominal, thigh, triceps, subscapular (under scapula), suprailiac (near hipbone) and midaxillary (under armpit near rib). Measurements are then entered into an equation to determine body fat.

9. Pinching an Inch - Pinching your midsection to “measure” fatness is very subjective and a difficult way to determine progress, says Kessee. “It only shows where a client’s body is at that moment. Retaining water or tight skin on one versus loose skin on others.” Loose skin can vary with individuals who are obese, women who’ve recently given birth or those who’ve lost a lot of weight resulting in hanging skin. Using another measure to ascertain a growing “pinch” or loss of weight would likely provide better information.

10. Journaling - Putting pen to paper is shown to help keep a person focused and organized, whether they’re tracking eating habits or recording workout progress, says Kessee. Keep it simple. “When journaling your workouts, break them out by body part.” Make note of weaker body parts and focus on them in your next workout. If recording dietary intake, track not only the food, but also the amount, where you were when you ate it (the car, on the run), the time (are you always starving at 2:00?) and even your mood to see if you’re eating in reaction to hunger or emotions.

11. BEFORE and AFTER Photos - Your "Before" and "After" photos can be a strong way to really see your progress and accomplishments along the way toward reaching your fitness goal. Try to take your "Before" pictures the day or the first week or month you start your fitness program. Men should take the photos wearing shorts or a swimsuit without a shirt on, and women should take the photos in a bikini or tight gym shorts and a sports bra. It's important to see your stomach, and be sure not to suck that tummy in! You may see your most pronounced changes in the stomach area. Use a tripod or get a friend or family member to help you take the photos. Stand in front of a plain colored wall, with as little distraction or clutter behind you as possible. Take the photos again – wearing the same clothing -- in 30 days.