Ever start a workout program only to find the scale doesn’t budge (or actually goes up)? Both cardiovascular exercise and resistance training can build muscle and reduce fat, so just because the pounds don’t change doesn’t mean all that exercise is going to waste  . And because muscle has a much greater density (it takes up less volume than an equal mass of fat), it’s possible to get visibly slimmer without a significant drop in weight .
Does This Fat Make Me Look Fat? — Why It Matters
A common fitness misconception is that a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat. False! — a pound is a pound (of feathers, glass, Jell-O...you name it). But because a pound of fat takes up about four times the space of muscle tissue, it’s possible to look and feel trimmer even if body weight remains the same .
Of course, it’s also possible to weigh the same but look and feel fatter . This is especially evident among the elderly, as muscles tend to shrink with age because damaged muscle cells are repaired at a much slower rate than when they were young (grandma and grandpa do look smaller these days). Plus, with reduced physical activity during the golden years, the ratio of muscle to fat tends to decrease as we get older .
So while it’s a myth that muscle “weighs” more than fat, too much body fat can be a contributing factor to serious health conditions like stroke, coronary disease, and diabetes   . And though it’s difficult to determine the ideal amount of body fat for each individual, too little fat can also have unhealthy consequences, including reproductive dysfunction in women. Accepting the body’s need for both muscle and fat is important in maintaining overall health and fueling an active lifestyle   .
Scaling Down the Scale — The Answer/Debate
While the actual number of pounds might not waver after starting an exercise routine, the ratio of muscle to fat may be increasing, contributing to better health and improved overall fitness   . So after spending quality time bonding with the treadmill or the weight rack, don’t break off the relationship just because the scale isn’t moving in the “right” direction. It might be time to put the scale aside and instead measure results with a glance in the mirror or a new personal best in the gym.
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Photo by Marissa Angell
Originally published on August 30, 2011. Updated October 2013.