Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Can you give me some ideas on how to lose weight while using a wheelchair? I'm 66 and need a wheelchair to get around. When the distance is short enough, I use crutches. I'm on a tight budget, but try to work out as much as I can, with very little results. I'm getting depressed because nothing seems to work.

Dear Reader: One look at the multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry, and it's clear that staying fit is difficult for many of us. And while limited mobility certainly adds to the challenge, with creativity and determination, you can win this battle.

When you use a wheelchair, it's particularly important to get fit and to maintain a healthy weight. Even a few excess pounds can make it more difficult to get into and out of a wheelchair. In that same vein, you need your shoulders, arms and abs to remain strong so you can easily move into and out of the chair, and to prevent injury as you do so.

Let's start with what you eat. Focus on a diet made up of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, dairy products, healthy fats, legumes, whole grains and leafy greens. Limit added sugars, and cut out empty calories like sodas and processed snack foods. The key here is to adjust your diet to your level of physical activity.

One tool that really works (and takes a bit of courage to do honestly) is keeping a food diary. Even if just for one week, write down everything that passes your lips. The details will jolt you into awareness and, quite possibly, motivate you to make some changes.

As for exercise, the days of the sedentary wheelchair-user are over. There are several exercises you can do from your chair.

With a pair of hand weights, you can keep your biceps, triceps, pectorals and even your abs strong and toned. Resistance bands are another way to maintain strength and range of motion.

An exercise ball is an excellent workout tool. Hold it above your head and, as you engage your stomach muscles, slowly rotate from left to right and back again. Lift the ball above your head and slowly lower it, again engaging your abdominals. Hold the ball above your head, once again engaging your abs, and perform slight tilts to the points of the compass.

With all of these, the idea is to start slow and gradually build up repetitions. Stop if you feel any pain. And be sure to drink water and stay hydrated.

Is there a senior citizen center in your area? Many of them have exercise and yoga classes that can be adapted for someone using a wheelchair. Some even have sports teams that will make room for a rolling athlete.

A challenge for all of us as we get older is social isolation. A group activity can help you feel connected, which will raise your spirits and keep you motivated.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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