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Fitness for people of all weights

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Exercise is a word that makes many people cringe. It may evoke memories of childhood gym class, physical discomfort, or difficulty finding time for physical activity. For some people with obesity, fear of falling or injury can be a high barrier to activity, recent research suggests. This finding has important implications for health and well-being. So, how can we make movement safe and enjoyable for people of all weights?

The Benefits of Being Active

Physical activity has numerous benefits, including combating anxiety and depression, preventing bone thinning, toning muscles, improving sleep quality, and lowering blood pressure and blood sugar. It would take numerous medications to achieve what regular physical activity can do for you. Exercise is often incorporated into weight loss programs, as it helps with weight maintenance and may even assist with weight loss. In addition to burning calories, exercise also builds muscle mass, which can decrease appetite and food intake.

Study Finds Fear of Injury Hinders Weight Loss in People with Obesity

A recent study followed 292 participants enrolled in an eight-week medical weight loss program in Sydney, Australia, all of whom met the criteria for obesity or severe obesity. The study found that many people with obesity fear injury and falling, which interferes with their willingness to exercise. Participants completed a 12-question injury perception survey at the beginning of the study, with the majority reporting fear of injury or falling, and believing their weight made injury more likely to occur. One-third said that their fear stopped them from exercising. The researchers also recorded weight, height, and waist circumference, and administered strength tests during the first, fourth, and last sessions. When the study ended, the researchers found that the participants most concerned about getting injured hadn’t lost as much weight as those who did not express this fear. Those who hadn't lost as much weight also tended to have the highest scores of depression, anxiety, and sleepiness.

The Importance of Safe and Enjoyable Exercise for All Weights

Exercise is beneficial at every weight, as it protects the heart, lowers blood sugar, boosts mood, and reduces anxiety. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, prevents bone thinning. If worries about an injury or falls cause people to avoid exercise, they miss out on the balance-building, muscle-and-bone-strengthening, and mood-enhancing benefits of regular activity. They may be more likely to fall and potentially experience fractures.

Strategies for Safe Exercise

Finding ways to exercise safely, confidently, and joyfully is essential for everyone, at every weight.

  • Starting low and going slow is a good strategy if you’re not currently active. Begin by simply sitting less and standing more, or try walking for two minutes every half hour. If you’re afraid of falling, try walking in place or alongside a friend or loved one who can provide security and comfort.
  • Asking for guidance is also a good option, such as joining a YMCA for supervised activities or asking your doctor for a prescription for physical therapy to help improve your balance and build your confidence.
  • Trying different activities to see what works for you is another way to make exercise enjoyable, such as swimming, water aerobics, or adaptive activities and sports designed for people with physical limitations and disabilities. Depending on your fitness level and interests, you might also consider dancing, biking, or any other activity that gets you moving more often.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that many people suffer from anxiety, and a fear of falling is not insurmountable. If you’re struggling, consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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