What's water weight?

Having too much sodium in the body and being sedentary can play a big role in water weight.

Story highlights

  • Water weight can make your fingers swollen and ankles puffy
  • The kidneys hold on to excess water to counteract salt
  • To avoid it, get moving and drink plenty of water
Chances are you've been tempted to try to cheat the bathroom scale at some point, especially on those mornings when your fingers are swollen, your ankles are puffy and your pants feel a little more snug than usual.
Clearly that's just water weight, not real weight, right? So who's really going to blame you for subtracting a few extra pounds from your total to bring your number down a notch?
Can this type of bathroom-scale math be messing up your fitness goals? What's the skinny on water weight, anyway -- and is there anything you can do to avoid seeing the extra pounds it (temporarily) creates?
The verdict: Water weight isn't as "real" as weight from muscles and fat, but it does exist -- and there are health choices you can make to keep it at bay.
Look, there's no way you're going to suddenly gain three pounds of fat overnight. "Water weight is real for some people," says Katherine Zeratsky, a specialty nutritionist and dietician with the Mayo Clinic and coauthor of "The Mayo Clinic Diet."
"Having too much salt or sodium in the body is a big factor, and so is being sedentary and not moving around enough."
To be clear, we're talking about water weight as "bloating" and not chronic water retention, which indicates a malfunctioning of your kidneys or hormones. Bloating is sporadic, usually triggered by diet or lifestyle, and can be remedied without a trip to the doctor -- though the kidneys do play an important role.
"The kidney is a dynamic organ," says Zeratsky. "It decides whether to hold on to water. If you've had too much salt the night before, then your kidneys will hold on to more water to dilute or correct that salty imbalance... Then they flush it all out."
Extra water is typically stored all over your body in the tissue or between blood vessels, and tends to pool in the extremities (fingers, toes and lower legs).
It may seem counterintuitive, but your body also tends to store water when you're dehydrated: If you're not drinking enough, your salt/water ratio becomes unbalanced and your body will hang on to any extra fluids until the balance is restored. (Don't drink alcohol to replenish your fluids; it will only dehydrate you further -- thereby adding to your water weight.)
Water weight tends to magically melt away as your kidneys restore your body's salt/water balance, which may still leave you thinking these "ghost pounds" are fair game to be subtracted off the bathroom scale.
But Zeratsky warns against this: "Sometimes your body's weight fluctuates," she says. "It's around a five-pound range; that's normal for everyone... (But) it's important to weigh yourself at the same time and in the same way every day -- without making deductions -- to get a good picture of your overall weight."
Since fooling the scale is no longer an option, here are some better ways to ditch that water weight fast:
Get moving. The last thing you want to do when you're bloated is exercise, but working up a sweat is a great way to ditch the water weight. Working out also reduces inflammation so your body retains less water overall. It's a win-win situatio