Adults who use wheelchairs can find it harder to lose weight, because they tend to use fewer calories through physical activity. But if you’re a wheelchair user and you are overweight, there are still changes you can make to achieve a healthy weight.
Many of us eat more calories than we need, and don't do enough physical activity. Over time, this leads to weight gain. That's why around two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese.
If you're a wheelchair user, you're at particular risk of weight gain, partly because wheelchair users tend not to use the large muscles in their legs, and so use less energy in day-to-day life.
Checking your weight
Body mass index (BMI) is commonly used as a measure of whether someone is a healthy weight for their height.
However, it's sometimes not enough to use BMI to check the weight of someone with a disability, as this may not give the full picture. For example, you may have a health condition that can affect your weight or height.
If you are uncertain about your weight, talk to your doctor. They will be able to provide advice on whether BMI is a suitable measure for you, and whether you are currently a healthy weight.
Your doctor can also help if you are not able to weigh yourself.
Why you are overweight
Helen Bond is a dietitian with experience of working with wheelchair users.
She says that wheelchair users can find it difficult to gauge how many calories they need to eat. This means they can eat more than they need, resulting in weight gain.
“Wheelchair users are in a very different situation from other adults when it comes to how many calories they need,” she says. “This can be hard to adapt to.
“If you are new to using a wheelchair, you might eat as you did before, but you are using less energy through physical activity, and so you begin to put on weight. If you live with other adults who need more calories than you, you may eat as much as them, and again this will result in weight gain.
“Wheelchair users can also lose muscle in their legs over time. When we have less muscle, we need fewer calories to maintain our bodyweight.”
Losing weight in a wheelchair
The key to losing weight the healthy way is to adjust your diet and level of physical activity.
To lose weight, you need to regularly use more energy than you consume through food and drink. You can do this by a combination of eating fewer calories and being more active. However, if your ability to move around is severely restricted by your condition, then dieting will be the main way that you can lose weight.
Aim to lose between 1lb (0.5kg) and 2lb (1kg) a week until you reach your target weight. A healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity will help you to maintain a healthy weight in the long term.
Ask your doctor if there is a community weight management service available near you. The service aims to help people:
- lose weight and keep it off
- limit further weight gain
- get into a regular eating pattern
- achieve a balanced diet
- become more physically active
- reduce overeating and portion sizes
- learn new long-term lifestyle skills
Anyone who wants to use the service, which welcomes wheelchair users, is screened by a qualified weight management adviser to determine their suitability for the service and their programme preference. For some people, a one-to-one programme may be available.
Change your diet
The average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain his bodyweight. The average woman needs around 2,000 calories a day.
If you are a wheelchair user, it’s likely you’ll need less than these guideline amounts.
A doctor or dietitian can help you to work out your daily calorie needs.
Counting calories? Check out our handy guide to What 100 calories looks like. You might be surprised at the differences between certain food groups.
While adjusting your diet so that you eat fewer calories, it’s important to ensure that you eat healthily and get all the nutrition you need.
“A balanced diet for wheelchair users is the same as it is for other adults,” says Helen Bond. “You just need to adjust the amount of calories you eat, to take into account the fact that you are likely to be moving around less.”
A healthy balanced diet means eating:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables – aim to eat at least five varied portions of fruit and veg every day
- plenty of starchy foods, such as brown bread, wholegrain pasta and potatoes
- some milk and dairy foods
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
Try to consume just a small amount of foods and drinks that are high in fat or sugar. You can learn more by reading Eight tips for healthy eating.
You can get tips on managing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in your family’s diet from Change4Life’s Be Food Smart campaign.
Becoming more active is important to maintain a healthy weight. This will help you to use more calories regularly than you consume in food and drink, and this will lead to better fitness and help weight loss.
Being a wheelchair user doesn’t have to mean leading an inactive lifestyle.
If you can, aim to do regular cardiovascular activity, as well as regular muscle-strengthening exercise. Cardiovascular physical activity is particularly important when it comes to losing weight. This is activity that raises your heart rate, gets you slightly out of breath and causes you to break a sweat.
This doesn’t have to mean sport, or time at the gym. You could start by making short journeys by pushing yourself in your wheelchair, instead of taking the car or public transport.
If the gym does appeal, though, there is a range of good options for wheelchair users. These can include rowing machines adapted for wheelchair use, and weight machines for resistance exercises.
Other options include swimming, if you can, or wheelchair sports such as basketball, netball, badminton and boccia, the wheelchair sport featured in the London 2012 Paralympics. Boccia is similar to bowls, in which leather balls are rolled towards a target. It can be a particularly good option for those whose mobility is severely restricted, such as people with quadriplegia. Although it may not help with weight loss, simply participating can have a very positive effect on a person’s overall wellbeing.
WheelPower is an organisation that helps wheelchair users get involved in sport. Learn more at WheelPower: our sports associations.
For more information and activity ideas, read Fitness advice for wheelchair users.