Are we measuring the right things?

This morning, like most, I stepped on the scale. This routine measurement is designed as a nudge to guide that day’s eating.  If I’m happy with my weight I might indulge more than if I’m bummed that I packed on an extra pound.

It also acts as a proxy for what kind of shape I’m in. The idea that if I am below a certain weight  (no I’m not telling) it indicates that I’m good health.

The problem is that my weight is a pretty poor proxy for my fitness as evidenced by any number of recent health issues – ranging from a crippling bout of back pain or that recently I almost threw up meatballs while playing a soccer scrimmage with my children.

The reality is that my cardio health is not close to what its used to be, my back issues are exacerbated by an increasingly weak core, and my stable weight might not just be the result from a decent diet but also from atrophying muscle mass (as muscle weighs more than fat.)

So you see, while stepping on the scale may make me feel good,  it is not any more an indication of my fitness than today’s temperature.

What we measure matters a great deal.  It can inaccurately frame a problem and give false confidence in a solution.

Consider these alternatives:

If we want to people to lead comfortable lives do we measure inequality or mean real income levels (e.g. who has more vs. who has enough)

If we want to people to live healthier lives, do we measure life expectancy or expectancy of healthy living years?  (check out this calculator to see where you stand)

If we want to understand the state of our nation, should we measure GDP (gross domestic product) or National Happiness Index?  (see where you country stacks up here)

If we want to save our planet, do we only measure sea levels and increases in global temperatures or do we also track and share the number of extreme weather events and the number of people severely impacted by them (check out this treasure trove of new indicators)

The beauty today is that we can measure almost anything with increasing levels of ease and precision. But we should be careful in what we measure and importantly what we do with that information.

For when you step on a scale you are also putting your thumb on it.  The result could be a naively improved outlook instead of a vastly improved condition.

Leave a Reply