Weight Gain Means More Pain

Losing weight can be very difficult when you suffer from chronic pain. Making a few slight changes to your routine, however, may help prevent your condition from worsening.

If you have a chronic pain condition, and you’re overweight, you are likely to experience greater pain, more often, than someone who is at a healthier weight. The more you gain, the more your pain may worsen. The good news is: even if pain is slowing you down and contributing to weight gain, there are ways to maintain your current weight and prevent your pain from deteriorating.

Science has shown that pain levels increase as weight increases. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the State University of New York at Buffalo looked at the weight and self-reported pain records of more than 5,000 adults age 60 and older. They found that knee, hip, and back pain significantly increases with increased weight as measured by body mass index (BMI). Another study, based on a Gallup Organization survey of more than 1 million Americans of all ages, had similar results. Overweight study participants reported 20% higher rates of pain; those in the lower level of obesity ranges reported 68% higher rates; and those in the most obese groups reported 254% higher rates of pain. The connection between weight and pain was the same for men and women and became stronger with age.

Why Excess Weight Hurts

If you suffer from chronic pain, weight gain may occur because you are less active, because you eat more in response to the stress of coping with daily pain, or as a side effect of certain medications. That excess weight can put more stress on your joints, compress your spine, and make exercise difficult. In addition to the physical burden of excess weight, excess fatty tissue may lead to inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, is associated with increased pain and other symptoms of chronic diseases and disorders. It can all start to feel like an endless loop.

Stop Gaining, Start Maintaining

If you’re having trouble losing weight, stop trying. Instead, take steps to prevent further gain and focus on sustaining your current weight. Although the goals change when you switch from weight loss to weight maintenance, the approach is pretty much the same: start eating a healthier diet and try to be more active/get more exercise. Since there is less pressure involved in maintaining weight, you can use your time to develop new habits and otherwise prepare yourself to lose weight once and for all.

A study led by researchers at Stanford School of Medicine found that women who focused on maintaining their weight for eight weeks before embarking on a weight-loss plan were more likely to maintain their loss a year later, than women who didn’t take the time to stabilize their weight first. The following tips can help you be equally successful at preventing further weight gain:

  • Don’t try to lose weight during your maintenance period
  • Eat the foods you like to eat, but be mindful when you do. This means paying attention to what you are eating, eating reasonable amounts standard serving sizes, eating slowly, and savoring every bite.  For instance, if you can’t live without rice pudding, stick to a standard ½ cup serving for a snack or dessert. Round it out with a serving of fruit, such as a small apple or orange, or a handful of grapes, rather than polishing off the rest of the container. Food labels indicate standard serving sizes, and you can find more information on recommended servings sizes for all types of foods here.  
  • Spice up your low-cal life. Herbs and spices jazz up plain and lower-calorie foods to provide more satisfying flavor. For example, a sprinkling of smoked paprika adds a bacon-like flavor to salads, eggs, and bean dishes. A pinch of curry powder adds a mild, sweet-spicy touch to plain tomato soup, steamed carrots or cauliflower. Fresh or powdered ginger livens up a green smoothie, or most any type of smoothie, for that matter.
  • Keep a food and activity journal to help you get you started and succeed. Make entries at least three times a week, keeping track of what and how much you eat, as well as what type of physical activities you engage in, for how long, and how they make you feel.
  • Weigh yourself often. The Stanford study participants weighed themselves daily while maintaining and losing weight. Notice how your weight can fluctuate up to five pounds even if you haven’t gained or lost. When your weight hits the top of your range, take steps such as cutting back slightly on serving sizes or getting more exercise to bring it back down to the bottom of the range.
  • Find healthier substitutes. When you go food shopping or flip through a cookbook, look for lower-calorie options that are as filling and satisfying as some of the higher calorie foods that may contribute to weight gain. For instance, when you make lasagna, substitute thin, lengthwise slices of zucchini for noodles, and you’ll save between 60 and 100 calories per noodle, or about that much per serving. When you choose reduced-fat cheese over regular cheese, for example, you can save 40 or more calories and 3 to 4 grams of fat per ounce, while still eating the same amount of cheese.
  • Get enough sleep. For most people, this means 7 to 9 hours a night. When you don’t get enough sleep, your stress levels rise, your appetite increases, your metabolism slows down, your exercise rate is likely to drop, and your pain may worsen.
  • Build a support system. Join a weight management program, and/or try to surround yourself with friends, neighbors, or others who have similar health goals. By sharing ideas, cooking or exercising together, you can help each other to stay motivated and on target.
  • Educate yourself. Read as much as you can about healthy living to get new ideas for food and exercise (see ideas below) that will help keep you engaged and make your path toward reaching your goals more exciting.

Once your weight is stabilized, and new and healthier approaches to food and exercise start to feel like old habits, you can continue to use all of these tips to reach a healthier weight. If you can’t or don’t wish to lose weight, it is still important to develop better health habits for weight maintenance as you age.

Food & Exercise Tips

  • The DASH diet, originally developed to treat and prevent hypertension, is consistently rated one of the healthiest diets for most people to follow, regardless of blood pressure levels. The National Institutes of Health offers a free brochure describing the DASH diet
  • Another highly rated eating plan is a Mediterranean–style diet, which is similar to the DASH diet. The Oldways organization provides more information and a free brochure download. 
Updated on: 12/20/17
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