Obesity: Personalized Attention is Key for Helping Disabled Adults

Managing one's mood is key to maintaining a healthy weight.

By Jing Hong

Americans with physical disabilities face well-known challenges, ranging from social or workplace discrimination to buildings without elevators or accessible bathrooms.

Less obvious is that people with limited mobility may also be left out of efforts that are helping others combat obesity.

There are glimmers of hope about the nation’s weight problem: the skyrocketing rate of obesity among U.S. adults has leveled off after several decades of increase, according to a report from the Trust for America’s Health. Not that we’re a skinny nation: about 34.9 percent of people qualified as obese – meaning they were roughly 35 pounds over a healthy weight – in 2012.

In the rush to help Americans stop gaining weight, government agencies and church groups alike are trying to help people eat right, get fit and lose weight. And although many people have shed pounds with a variety of strategies, individuals with physical disabilities may be left behind.

A small study conducted by University of Georgia researchers this summer shows that personalized attention can help people burn calories and lose pounds even if they can’t climb on a treadmill.

Of the 54 million Americans with a disability, nearly 42 percent are obese and 9 percent of these are extremely obese, according to Kevin McCully, a professor of kinesiology in the College of Education and a member of the Obesity Initiative at the University of Georgia. That’s 10 percent higher than the overall rate.

Although most people with disabilities are optimistic, some of them, especially those who sit on power wheelchairs, often have depression or other emotional problems that complicate the situation. David Restrepo, 49, worked in a candy factory in South Florida before he broke his leg a traffic accident last year. He’s been confined to a wheelchair since then and has developed depression.

“The only thing I felt like doing that time was drinking alcohol and eating,” said Restrepo, who became obese and developed diabetes during his period of depression. He is now receiving treatment for his diabetes and has his depression under control, thanks to help from a psychologist at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems in Athens.

Like other people, those with mobility impairments often overeat when they are depressed. So managing mood disorders is an important part of maintaining healthy weight – along with eating more fruits and vegetables and being physically active. A recent study by researchers at The University of Texas School of Public Health confirmed the value of this approach, and tackled a common misunderstanding about what it means to exercise.

Although many people think that exercise must be vigorous, such as running fast and hard, there are many ways to burn calories. Every time people move, their bodies exert energy. So people should just move the limbs they can move, which will help them burn calories.

Since last summer, Dr. McCully has paired UGA students enrolled in “Introduction to preventative health in people with disabilities” with 10 to 20 local people with disabilities. The class continues for the whole semester and after this year’s students graduate, the next year’s students will continue to help this group.

The class meets three times a week and primarily focuses on physical activity. In each pair, students teach people who have physical disabilities general physical activities, such as stretching. Some of the students have come up with innovative ways to play video games. They also receive advice on how to eat nutritionally.

At the end of the class, the students will write a specific wellness plan for each person, Dr. McCully said. Last summer, the participants lost four and a half pounds on average.

McCully hopes to refine the program and repeat it on a larger scale. 

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