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Ask the PT: Should I wear wrist weights if I have spinal problems?

Hello WSPT,

I am a 69 yr old male living in Yonkers, New York. I have a lumbar disc fusion involving rods and screws coming up sometime in the next 3 months. Due to spinal problems, I have been sedentary for about the last year. My question involves my arms. We live in a 2 story house, so my legs get at least some exercise. My arms do not and I know they are getting atrophy. So I decided to get some wrist weights to wear all day. I have one pound on each wrist. I wore them half of yesterday and have had them on all day today. No adverse consequences yet. I would just like to know if this a good idea or if it might do more harm than good?

Thank you.
Mr. Dickinson

Mr. Dickinson,

This is a very interesting question. I see people walking near our Yonkers physical therapy center with wrist and/or ankle weights all the time. I don’t know if they are attempting to increase their exertion or, like you, attempting to increase their arm strength.

First, I’ll tell you my intuitive answer and then I’ll tell you what I found. I think it’s not a great idea to apply weight to the end of a limb for a prolonged period of time while performing normal daily activities. There’s a good chance that 1lb will not have a significant effect on you – positive or negative, but applying enough weight will put you at unnecessary risk of injury. When you walk with extra weight on your wrists it applies an unnatural force on your elbows, shoulders and spine. This may not cause a direct injury, but the change in your walking and mobility mechanics will eventually take a toll. Once again, I don’t think 1lb will have a huge effect, but it won’t likely help much either. Heavier weights will put you at risk of overstretching ligaments and/or irritating tendons proximal to your wrists.

The only research I found on this subject was about the physiological effects of wearing weights on the extremities. According to Graves, et al, 3lb weights on the wrists, in the hands or around the ankle did not have a significant effect (vs. no weights) on sedentary men when they completed a treadmill test at 75% of their normal heart rate. They did not measure whether this made them stronger or caused injuries.

In conclusion, this strategy that you are exploring does not have scientific validity to support its value and may do more harm than good. Considering your lumbar condition and your interest in strengthening your arms, I recommend that you put those wrist weights to more productive use. Designate specific time once or twice a day to exercise your arms. Get started by positioning yourself comfortably. This may mean sitting, lying down or standing with your back against a wall. A program of upper extremity range of motion and light bodyweight exercises will likely go a long way for you. Once you establish full range of motion of your shoulders, elbows and wrists, you can add those 1lb weights to your wrists to go through the same motions. For specific exercise recommendations, you should meet with a Physical Therapist at our Yonkers location or Personal Trainer. We can show you the right exercises that will help you not only get stronger but will do so safely. We recommend however, when exercise time is over, put the weights away and go on with your day without them.

Thanks for asking,

Daniel Seidler, PT

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