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What to do when you can’t exercise because of pain but need to lose weight to reduce pain


When you can't exercise because of pain but need to lose weight to get out of pain


"I can't exericse but need to lose weight...

When you have chronic weight-bearing pain, and you are told losing weight will help, you feel trapped. The pain is keeping you from exercising to help with weight loss and your weight is keeping you from reducing the pain.  When you can't exercise but need to lose weight, here is the whole-person science-based solution.



You don’t need to be in pain because you are overweight


When you are carrying extra weight, you are often told that is the reason for your pain. "When you lose weight that will feel better". It can leave you feeling like there is no way out but to push through the pain so you can lose weight.


That makes exercise a daunting part of your day that you dread. It keeps you stuck in the cycle of feeling like you can't do enough exericse to lose weight but you need to lose weight to get out of pain. Yet movement and motivation science tell a completely different story!


Both body and brain sciences agree pain is a sign something needs to change.


What happens when you push through pain

When you push through it two things happen:

1. your body has to deal with more inflammation, perpetuating pain

2. your brain thinks you didn't get the signal that there is a problem and continues to send larger pain signals, perpetuating pain


This evidence-based understanding of pain is often ignored when it comes to exericse, as if exercising to lose weight changes these facts about pain. It doesn't.


Why "no pain no gain" does not work for weight loss

The problem is the ‘no pain, no gain’ message has made its way into weight loss because we have been told that more exercise is better for weight loss. That is based on very outdated science that says your body can burn endless amounts of calories, so more exercise leads to more weight loss. If this were true, you would be out of luck if pain limited your ability to burn calories. Thankfully, we now have evidence that the ‘unlimited calorie burning” science was wrong and your body's calorie-burning capacity is relatively fixed. 


This means you do not need to be in pain just because you are carrying extra weight. It frees you to redefine exercise from a way to burn calories to a way to feel and function better now, to reduce inflammation and lower pain signals. This opens the door to using exericse to not only lose weight, but to get what you really want from weight loss - to feel better - even before the scale reaches a goal weight.


When you think you can't exercise but need to lose weight here is the solution


Below are general guidelines and steps for exercising to reduce pain and help your body get in the state to lose weight in a healthy, functional, and sustainable way.


  • Do a balance of the three types of exercise—mobility, strength, and stamina—rather than focusing on one type starting with a very small amount of each at the pain-free or pain-reducing level

  • Restore muscle memory for the three principles of moving well so you can do mobility (stretching and balance), strength (weight lifting), and stamina (cardiovascular) exercises in a way you can move without pain. 

    • Choose an intensity that is pain-free or pain-reducing. 

    • Choose the duration that is pain-free or pain-reducing. This may be several small bouts with rest in between, rather than one longer bout. 

    • Choose a frequency of each type of exercise that is pain-free or pain-reducing.  That may mean alternating days of cardiovascular and strength exercises and stretching in small segments throughout your day. 

  • Use mindful awareness to listen to your body to know if a type, intensity, duration, or frequency is too much. Be willing to back off if your body says “no, thank you” in the form of pain.   


If you are already exercising, pushing through pain, or have in the past, this is a difficult shift to make. It will feel like you are not doing enough. The truth is, only when exercise lowers or eliminates pain can it help restore mobility, strength, and stamina and shift your body out of the chronic stress state caused by being in pain. This allows exercise to put your body in a state where it can lose weight in a sustainable way.


The essential mindset shift about exercising for weight loss

The shift is getting out of the calorie-burning mindset and into the cure chronic stress mindset. Updating your understanding about how the body loses excess fat, while preserving muscle and function is key here. Clarifying your Core Why for wanting to lose weight, rather than focusing on getting to a goal weight sets you up for true and sustainable success with getting to and staying at a healthy weight.


The great news is, you get to feel better now, before you lose weight! If you are living with chronic pain, you may have become good at ignoring it. Shifting the mindset from pain being a barrier to pain being a helpful message takes practice and trust.  


This is one of the most difficult, but most rewarding changes I see in clients. When they understand how to use pain as a message, it restores their hope that they can exercise, they can lose weight, and most importantly, they can enjoy parts of life again they thought were lost.


If you are limited by pain and want professional guidance for making these changes, guidance from a professional Clinical Exercise Coach makes all the difference! Sign up for a coaching Exercising Well membership and within a few sessions, you will be on the path to knowing how to exercise to reduce pain and find a healthy sustainable weight, all at the same time.  


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