For some, the first clue that a weight-reduction plan is in order is a pair of jeans that won’t button or the more subtle hip-to-waist-fit creep. Others might be prompted by the show-all of the pool or beach season. But the impact of excess weight is far more than cosmetic. “Being overweight places a strain on every single cell of your body,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic.
She’s not exaggerating. Excess weight causes the cells to become insulin resistant. When muscle cells, in particular, become insulin resistant, their ability to absorb glucose, the blood sugar that all food breaks down into and which cells need to fuel their functions, is impaired. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes. Numerous studies have found that excess weight also contributes to increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis (and with that, a higher likelihood of needing hip and knee replacements), along with decreased levels of fertility in women. But even if you write those problems off as coming due “someday,” think of the everyday difficulties you may already be facing: Being overweight makes it harder to do such simple daily activities as walking up stairs, playing with the kids, even getting out of a chair.
Ironically, excess weight can also make it more difficult to exercise. “When it comes to exercise, someone who is overweight has a lot of mass to move,” says Heather Nettle, MA, coordinator of exercise physiology services, sports health and orthopaedic rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic. “This means there’s additional impact on your joints, particularly the knees and feet; for every pound you have, there’s more force on your joints.” Since our joints weren’t designed to bear such force, high- or medium-impact activities — like jogging — can be extremely painful, if not dangerous, for some. Additionally, she says, because an overweight person’s aerobic conditioning is often low, his heart rate spikes quickly and is hard to sustain. So for both safety and fatigue reasons, it’s important to go slowly at first and gradually build up.
The trick is to choose activities that are safe for you, and that you enjoy. Walking, swimming and water aerobics (the buoyancy of water reduces stress on joints) can all help condition you and provide the benefits of physical exercise without stressing your joints. Another option, if even those activities are too stressful on your body, is to use an upper-body ergometer — basically, a hand bike that lets you sit and pedal with your arms. As you get more fit — and you will with regular activity — you can add new activities to keep gaining ground. Discuss with your doctor what activities would be best for your abilities and health level.