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When You Can’t Exercise


I was chatting at a party with a woman who was lamenting the weight she’d gained since she could no longer run 20 miles several days a week. She was frustrated that she’d put on weight, but the more she focused on eating less, the more she was drawn to food. This conversation reminded of an exchange I’d had with a client who could no longer run and felt her best life had ended until she started swimming and then everything felt fine again. Regarding swimming, living in Florida helps.

These exchanges may not be foreign to many of you. During the first half of my life, I also used exercise to manage my weight. I’m not saying I wasn’t trying to be healthy as well, but I had great fear that if I didn’t do my usual workouts, I wouldn’t fit into my clothes. It was only when I was forced to give them up temporarily due to circumstances—travel, dysfunctional body parts, and schedule changes, for example—that I learned to be more comfortable when I can’t be as active as I normally am.

As the woman at the party soon learned when she tried to count and cut back calories, thinking restrictively only put food on her mind 24/7. She felt bad craving food and ashamed when she ate it which only made her want to eat more to relieve her shame. When she found out I was an eating disorders therapist, she asked if I could help with her eating problem. I told her flat out the only eating problem I could see was that she was depriving herself of food and therefore making it a problem.

I asked about other activities she could do and if it would be the most awful thing in the world if she did put on a few pounds and didn’t fit into all her clothes. She was relieved to hear that I didn’t think she had an eating problem and acknowledged that food deprivation did seem to be a cause of obsessing about food and her rebound eating.

I’m afraid to say that there’s no great answer to the question of what to do about gaining weight if you need to cut out or back on exercise. You can try reducing portion size or eliminating certain foods but only if you’re still eating enough and don’t feel restricted. You’ll need to test out how that works, meaning seeing if it makes you more focused on eating or not. As mentioned, you can seek out substitute activities. For example, if you have bad knees, you can still do core and upper body exercises or swim.

The fact is that if you can’t do your usual activities, you might put on pounds. How you react to this news (panic or acceptance) will dictate your success in managing weight gain. There are no easy answers except to know you’ll be okay no matter what.