Is it fat or lack of exercise?

Lately I’ve felt like the “Maybe you want to exercise?” fairy.  People muse about aches, lack of energy,  difficulty walking, and wonder if it’s weight or just aging….

And I pop in with, “Are you sure it’s not lack of exercise?”

Please understand, I’m not actually trying to make people crazy.   See, I’ve weighed over 350lbs for over 15 years.  During that time:

  • I’ve been in very poor physical condition, which for me means walking a block or carrying groceries is difficult.  This included several months of constant pain in one leg or the other.
  • I’ve also been in pretty good physical condition, meaning that walking 2 or 3 miles or carrying boxes of books is easy.

Note that what doesn’t change overly much between these two states is my weight.*  What does change is how active I am and whether I’m getting regular exercise.   It’s almost like muscles usually get stronger from exercise, or like exercise doesn’t require weight loss to improve health.

I’m not trying to be unsympathetic. I have been at the point where I was in constant pain, such as when I injured myself by starting an exercise program that I thought was moderate and reasonable.  (Really!  It just, um, turned out not to be moderate and reasonable enough.)   I did physical therapy, now it doesn’t hurt … as long as I keep up with my exercises.  This has become one of my huge motivators to exercise: not hurting.

I used to get more activity in my daily life, either walking around school or chasing 4-year-olds or walking around the huge office park where I worked.  I would feel stronger and more energetic and just better when I was exercising regularly, but even when I wasn’t I wasn’t as sedentary as my life allows now.  I don’t get what I consider to be enough activity from my daily life, so I exercise.

I do truly believe that fitness isn’t a “yes” or “no”.  It’s a question — fit for what? It’s partly a function of where your body is now (A), what you want to be able to do (B), and what’s involved in getting from A to B.   Sometimes it’s not doable, either because of disability, time commitment, or lack of equipment (if you want to be able to swim 2 miles and don’t have access to a pool, you’re going to have problems!)

My goals?

  • I want to be able to walk a few flights of stairs, to be able to walk a few miles, and to be able to lift and carry 50 or 80lbs a few dozen yards.
  • I want to be able to balance on one foot for 30 seconds or more.
  • I’m happy with my current level of flexibility, so I want to maintain it.

What am I doing about it?

  • I’m going for a walk every day.  Short, but daily, and increasing as I feel capable.
  • I live in a house with stairs and I sometimes take the stairs at work.
  • When I take the elevator, I balance on one foot while waiting for it.
  • I continue to stretch and do yoga at home.

This doesn’t mean I think everyone has to exercise.  Just that I find it helpful for my own energy and ability levels to focus on exercise.


*I have gained and lost weight in there — most of the gain was during a bout with depression, with a bit of help from Celexa.  For me, exercising regularly tends to result in a 5 to 10lb weight loss.  I also lost 30lbs on Atkins before I began regaining; final result was a net gain of 10lbs.

18 thoughts on “Is it fat or lack of exercise?

  1. No clue whether you’re making other people crazy, but I’m a big fan of your comments along those lines. Like you, I don’t advocate exercise as the solution to all the world’s ills (in fact, doing it badly or too much or for the wrong reasons is a big cause of some of those ills!) but if someone is concerned about an inability to do a certain thing then exercises designed to prepare them to do that seems like a no brainer. If you want to be able to lift groceries once a week, then practice lifting something a couple of times a week. If you want to be able to win a powerlifting competition then you practice lifting something wicked heavy a couple of times a week. If you want to be able to go up stairs without getting winded, walk up a few stairs every day increasing either the duration or intensity as your fitness allows, lather rinse repeat.

    None of this will guarantee fitness, nor even success at your specific goal. Some people’s bodies just won’t respond no matter how hard they try, other people’s goals are just out of reach for their bodies. Exercise isn’t some sort of magical cure all, but then again fat isn’t some sort of mystical curse that makes muscles and aerobic systems useless either. Most people don’t need the sort of muscle it would take to lift 350 pounds out of a tub or up a set of stairs every day, but if you’re one of the ones that does, then doing a bit of training to keep that ability up to snuff is probably a good idea.

    • doing it badly or too much or for the wrong reasons is a big cause of some of those ills!

      Quite true, which is part of why I point out I injured my knee by exercising! ;)

      And yeah, exercise can often help with getting better at things. Heck, part of it is just practice — getting your body used to moving in a particular way.

  2. Well, you know how I feel about exercise!

    Thing is “more exercise” is such a fluid thing. For one person it might mean a five mile run. For someone else, it might mean getting up every hour to do wall squats.

    I do think that increasing one’s strength is never a BAD idea as long as you’re only GENTLY challenging your present levels.

  3. I do truly believe that fitness isn’t a “yes” or “no”. It’s a question — fit for what?

    I wish more people were willing to consider this question. So often we’re held up some ideal of what “fit” looks like and means, and most people realize that’s either totally unrealistic for them or something that would require a time commitment they don’t have.

    My husband is always falling into the “Well, if I’m going to exercise, it’s going to be to train for a marathon” mindset. And, not surprisingly, he lasts about 2-3 weeks then gives up. Because, being able to run a marathon requires a commitment of time that isn’t feasible for him, and yet he seems to think that being “fit” means being able to run a marathon, and if he can’t do that, there’s no reason to bother. I’ve tried to emphasize the benefits of moderate activity, but I can understand why he feels that way, given the way “fit” gets presented to us.

    The immediate, felt benefits of exercise so often get ignored. Of course, the catch-22 is often that the very problems that exercise can help alleviate are the ones that make it difficult to do. I know that my back and hips feel better when I walk in the morning, and that my energy level is better for the day, but when I wake up and my back and hips hurt and I already have no energy, it’s really hard to get going walking. I’m just looking forward to this baby finally being born so that I don’t have to battle pain and fatigue every time I consider exercise, and I really feel for people who, due to disability or age or other issues, have those problems all the time. I can understand why somebody would choose to not exercise, even knowing it might or will make them feel better, just because the very conditions they want to improve make exercise so difficult.

    • I know that my back and hips feel better when I walk in the morning, and that my energy level is better for the day, but when I wake up and my back and hips hurt and I already have no energy, it’s really hard to get going walking.

      Yep. There can also be an undercurrent of fear. When I first injured my knee, I was worried about making it worse, so I stopped all the exercising I had been doing and rested a lot with an ice pack. As it happens I’d been doing more than my muscles could handle, but I also had muscles that weren’t strong enough to do their “normal” job — so I was trying to walk without using most of my quadriceps muscle, which is really NOT how the human leg is designed! In my case walking consistently and regularly, and doing targeted strength training, were what was needed. But I didn’t know that until after the physical therapist’s evaluation. If I hadn’t been able to afford to see the doctor and physical therapy I’m not sure what I would have done.

    • I can understand why somebody would choose to not exercise, even knowing it might or will make them feel better, just because the very conditions they want to improve make exercise so difficult.

      Reading that made me very happy. Of course I have the slightly different problem that I simply haven’t been able to find a type of exercise that helps yet, but it’s always reassuring to find out that someone understands.

      As for the subject of the original post … hehe. I saw some of those comments and wondered what it must be like to repeat yourself all the time. I think they’re needed though – most people probably just don’t realise that they could get better at whatever they have trouble doing without losing weight. I’ve been telling my boyfriend the same thing, who of course doesn’t believe me because his belly is just “in the way.”

  4. Most of the time when that suggestion is made to me, there is a really palpable undercurrent of “but of course you WILL lose weight because thats just how it works”.

    Possibly people have just been subjected to that so much that they’ve basically become conditioned to the point that they hear it even when it isn’t there!

    Then there is the other side of the issue… if you try the exercise thing and it doesn’t work or even makes it worse, almost always you’ll be informed that you either did it wrong or you’re lying (at least from doctors, but often enough from friends and family too).

    At this point I’m almost glad my husband lost his job and our health insurance went with it. Sure, I’m still dealing with multiple nightly leg cramps waking me out of a sound sleep in screaming agony, but at least I don’t need to listen to some idiot tell me that I’m somehow managing to screw up “walk 20 minutes a day”.

      • Yeah, that was the first thing I tried. And don’t feel bad or worry that I’m tired of hearing it… you can’t know what I have and haven’t heard lol.

        The thing that is driving me nuts is not so much that the suggestion gets made (either the banana or the exercise one) the first time someone is told about the legs of hell issue. Whats driving me nuts is that the same people keep making those same suggestions a year and a half later!

        One would think that for example my sister would remember “oh yeah, I suggested bananas last week… and the week before… and oh yeah, every week for the last year and a half!”

        She’s driving me nuts, not you heh.

        As far as the exercise weight thing… the undercurrent is more that just 15 minutes a day will make us all super model size 0 perfect. And like you said, 5-10 lbs isn’t exactly what they mean. For that matter, when it’s warmer and I’m able to do all the outdoorsy stuff I like, I actually GAIN 5-10lbs lol. If my husband wasn’t so susceptible to cold and I wasn’t borderline agoraphobic (I can go outside… just need my security spouse with me or I have a panic attack heh, I’m a mess) I’d probably exercise year round… and be omg even fatter all year instead of just 9 months out of it LOL.

  5. Your boyfriend has been brainwashed, like at least 98% of the people of all sizes in our culture, to believe that fat means bad, unfit, unhealthy, &, unless you are going to change your entire life & starve every day forever & work out four hours daily, getting some activity will be ‘too hard’ for you &/or not do any good.

    I have been a lifelong exerciser & have battled at least borderline exercise bulimia over the years, having had at least 3 separate periods of between 3 & 4 years wherein I increased my exercise to 3-4 hours daily &, most recently, kept up the 1500 stomach crunches part of the last bout for nearly 7 years before I made myself stop, &, as for weight, the difference between exercising like a maniac, pushing a body with cerebral palsy to try to perform like an athlete, or getting 30-60 minutes of moderate activity was, over four years, a grand total of 15 pounds; however, cutting back to reasonable exercise in my late to mid-50’s, & finishing menopause, has resulted in a weight gain of about 35 pounds. Aging does cause some slight weight gain anyway, & our bodies do not like it when we try to trick them into being thinner than is normal for them, be it by starvation or excessive exercise.

    I have some arthritis pain &, because of the CP, a good deal of muscle weakness, so I am dealing with the ‘wobblies’ in the right knee right now, & trying to strengthen my quadriceps in the hope that it will help. We are, this month, at least, having a milder than average winter, so I am able to get outside & walk, using a sturdy four-prong cane, just in case the knees want to collapse. When I cannot get outside enough, I walk more inside the house (I am hyper anyway, rock in straight chairs, get up often & walk around, dance to the music on my granddaughter’s computer games & tv shows, etc.) & try to have one period every day of walking steadily for between 35 & 45 minutes. My body lets me know that, if I do not keep moving as much as I am able to move, soon it will not be able to move much at all, & that, combined with my lifelong inability to sit still, keeps me moving. And how fit I am & how fit I feel has nothing to do with my weight.

  6. I exercise 6 days a week between 30 to 50 minutes (plus stretching). I have steroid-induced insulin resistance and my husband’s cousin, a doctor, said the best way to keep it from turning into diabetes was exercise. So, in addition to feeling better when I do it, and being in better shape to chase my two kids around, it’s keeping diabetes at bay. I’ve been doing this pretty regularly for about 2 years now and I’ve got a doctor’s appointment next week to see how my glucose and insulin levels are. I’m expecting great improvement there, even though I haven’t lost all the weight everyone told me I would from exercise.

    Oh, and my husband’s cousin: tall and fat and very athletic (she swims, skis, plays tennis, and bikes). And yet she’s still fat. AND fit.

  7. The important thing to know is that if you are fat and your joints or knees hurt, there is hope! Exercise will help and you don’t have to be in pain. I slipped a bit on ice and my one knee was killing me, and I almost fell into the “well of course it will never get better because you’re too FAT” mindset. Instead I asked my doc for exercises to do and started on a treadmill. My treadmill time? 5 minutes. You have no idea how much I had to fight my brain to “allow” myself to just do 5 minutes and feel accomplished. Previously I might think “Well if you can’t do half an hour you’re hopeless so why try?”

    Exercise is important, especially as you get older. It doesn’t have to be a marathon, but you need to keep moving!

    • My treadmill time? 5 minutes.

      After my knee injury I started with 4 minutes on the treadmill. :) My daily walk is usually about 20 minutes right now, and that’s okay. I do more some days, but I’m being cautious about increasing it so that I can avoid injury. Also, since one of my goals is to do it every day, it’s important to do today what I’ll be able to do tomorrow ;)

      The important thing to know is that if you are fat and your joints or knees hurt, there is hope! Exercise will help and you don’t have to be in pain.

      Yes yes yes.

  8. I think with a lot of people, it gets ingrained that the only real exercise is done at a gym or at home using machines, weights and doing it for more than half and hour. That’s wrong.

    Any activity that gets you moving, whether it’s dancing (which I do about three times a week for a 1/2 hour), housework, gardening, going up & down stairs to do laundry, shopping, casual strolling, etc. is exercise. For people who have physical labor jobs, I wouldn’t even expect them to include extra workouts. When I worked as an activities assistant in a nursing home, that was my workout.

    And it’s ok if it’s an hour a day or five minutes a week, you’re getting beneficial physical activity and nobody should care if you don’t become a size 2 as a result.

  9. Excellent point about that, lifeonfats, ALL activity counts. Yes, when we are moving, we are MOVING, we are not sedentary. I do housework & play with & chase after & dance with a little one, I do walk virtually every day, & I am rarely still. Today I did a bit TOO much, so I am very tired & sore & on my way to the shower. I walked for about an hour & forty-five minutes this morning, then in the late afternoon, I went out to do my laundry & shopping; I walked around the store for about 35 or 40 minutes, then walked around the house taking care of everything for about another 45 minutes. It is NOT necessary…or even wise…to do that much every day.

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