Think You're Too Heavy to Exercise? - Part 1

I’m not going to sugarcoat things here, or tell you that starting and sticking to an effective exercise plan will be easy or fun. The fact is that if you’re very overweight and out of shape, you’re likely going to face some obstacles—both physically and mentally—that will challenge you in every possible way.

But I can tell you this: These obstacles are not just obstacles to exercise—they are the same challenges that stand between you and the life you want for yourself. If you can find a way to meet these challenges head-on now, by being successful at making exercise a part of your daily life, you’ll have self-management skills and the confidence you need to handle just about anything else life might throw at you. Exercise can help you shed pounds, and a lot of other unwanted baggage as well.

Sounds pretty dramatic, considering we’re just talking about exercise, doesn’t it? But it’s true—at least it was for me.

Trying to get myself off my 370-pound backside and into motion brought me face-to-face with all the parts of myself that had helped me get into the mess I was in: the part that had become an expert in excuse-making, procrastination, and rationalization; the part that relied on food and eating to manage feelings; the part that was afraid of what other people might think about me; the part of me that didn’t think I had what it took to lose weight (or do much of anything else); the part of me that was terrified of what might happen if I actually succeeded and no longer had my physical limitations to use as an excuse for avoiding intimate relationships, challenging work, and other anxiety-provoking situations; and yes, even the part that just plain liked sitting on the couch with a bag of chips a lot more than all the huffing and puffing and discomfort of exercise.

After years of yo-yo dieting, years of studying philosophy and psychology in graduate school to figure out what made me tick, and after trying one “miracle cure” after another, my own path beyond all these obstacles started with a very slow (and pretty painful) walk around the block. Go figure.

So, let’s talk about some of the challenges you might face, and how to handle them. This is the first in a three-part series, and we’ll focus here on getting off to a safe yet effective start. (Part 2 will offer you some tips for building and maintaining both your motivation and your progress, and Part 3 will focus on some special goal-setting and problem-solving techniques that can help you get through the toughest days—and have a lot less of them.)

Priority #1: Safety

Problem: One of the biggest mistakes people commit is making assumptions about what they can’t do without checking with someone who knows how to determine that. You may have physical problems, ranging from medical conditions that impose unavoidable limitations on what you can do, to the typical after-effects of years of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, such as chronic inflexibility, weakness, and muscle pain. These problems may rule out one kind of exercise or another. But it would be unusual if there is truly nothing you can do. The first step here is to sort out what really can’t be done (or changed) from what can. That begins with a visit to the doctor, to get a medically approved exercise prescription, telling you what you can and can’t do.

Solution: Don’t be one of those people. Tell your doctor you want to start exercising and ask for advice on what to do and what to avoid. Many doctors aren’t trained in exercise science, so if the advice you get is too vague or general to be helpful to you, go see a certified personal trainer (or ask for help on the SparkPeople Message Boards) to get a fitness plan that you can take back to your doctor for approval or modification. Between these two sources, you should get ideas to start safely.

Priority #2: Find Something That Fits YOU

Problem: You just can’t seem to find a good place to start. You’ve checked out the exercises in the Resource Center, but you don’t see many that suit you—if you get down on the floor, you may not be able to get up again by yourself (been there, done that), and your body just doesn’t bend or let you get into the positions illustrated. You’ve been to the gym, but you don’t even fit into half the machines there, and you felt like you were going to throw up after two minutes on the elliptical machine. To make things worse, all those young hard bodies in their little spandex clothes make you feel like you’re from another planet—and who the heck thought it was a good idea to put those stupid mirrors everywhere?! You’ve tried walking around the neighborhood, but you had to quit after a couple of minutes because your feet were sore or you got cramps in your legs…

Solution: Almost every exercise can be modified so you can do it (or something like it) in a way that meets your needs and present capacities. For example:
  • Chair exercises allow you to do many strength and stretching exercises that otherwise would have to be done on the floor or standing. This allows you to get through a whole routine that would have left you exhausted or worse if you were standing up the whole time.
     
  • You can take a water aerobics classes and/or do your walking in a swimming pool (with plenty of other people who aren’t exactly fond of wearing swimsuits), or you can use a walker.
The main idea is to start where you are right now, and adapt exercises to your needs and capacities, instead of trying (and often failing) to use exercises that aren’t right for you at this stage. With a little research and by asking questions, you’ll find that plenty of very effective alternatives to traditional exercises are already available. That’s why we have a Fitness Resource Center, Resident Experts, and the Community Message Boards, where you can get support and tips from lots of people struggling with the same problems you're facing.

Above all, don’t make it easy to talk yourself out of starting an exercise program by getting confused about the difference between a challenge and an insurmountable obstacle. Those undefeatable obstacles are really pretty few and far between and not so hard to work around—if you want it to be that way.
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Member Comments

Thanks for sharing these ideas! Report
Thank you for sharing. Report
Thank You Report
I miss coach Dean. I got excited to see this article in my Healthy Heart newsletter. I was hoping coach Dean had returned, but alas, though still very relevant, the article is from long ago.
I would love to have a link to "everything Coach Dean". He was amazing! Report
Good need-to-know information, thanks! Report
Thank you Report
I feel you on the spandex thing. A good pair of pants well made had me as XXL, same style at Walmart I was 5XL. Try on a lot and you will find some. If not just some comfy stuff that gives you good range of motion. I'm 335 now down from 350+ but I've been big my whole life. I was 210 when I was 10 so technically I weigh less than in high school lol after having a child and losing I'm working on toning to make up for the sagging areas. I have severe vestibular disability so I can't use treadmill or a lot of stuff. No balance here and I use mobility aids daily. But recumbrant bike is nice and free weights are my besties. Usually sitting. Good luck out there fellow big fam.
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Thank you..very helpful Report
thanks Report
I weight about 530 pounds and have lost 30 pounds sinccee joining sparks people. I am wheel chair bound with a ventalor attached 24 hours a day. i do from 3 to 4 hours of exercise a day. if i wake early enough i can get 2 hours in before breakfast. i have modified some exercises to fit my ablities and have had the physical thearpy department help with others i enjoy this program very much and hope to loose 100 pounds to in first 6 months. lots of good articles here that both motivate you keep you on right track. good luck to you all Report
Thank You............ Report
TOMATOCAFEGAL
Good info in article. Great focusing on member responses Report
This is motivating to read. Report
After being bedridden for 8 months then have another 3 months building strength to walk again. I had gained weight. My recumbient bike, ball and chair have become my best exercise friends. Since January I have taken off 10 pounds. I still can't do a lot of heavy work outs but I found that I can do most of the seated videos with Nichols. I had to adapt a few but I am definetly feeling more fit and stronger. I still go to Physio so I am checked regularly to see if I am over doing and they tell if I need to take a break and just do stretches for a bit till the swelling settles down. I am happy with progress. My motto is just move anyway you can. Report
LOUISA31
Hello Dean,
Awesome article here. I always considered myself to be at an okay weight until I had someone, at a gym I want to start attending, check my BMI. And to my surprise he told me I am actually obese despite weighing only 180 lbs.
Actually on the first day I came face to face with the reality of how unfit and obese I am. I couldn't do a single push up.
One thing I remember I was advised to do was to avoid wanting to lose weight too fast by engaging in activities such as running on treadmill. Apparently that would hurt my knees.
Something else that I learnt from a fitness blog https://www.homef
itnessarena.c
om/best-recum
bent-exercise
-bikes-for-over-300-lbs/ is that I can still engage in cardio workouts with machines that will not put my body under stress.
I'm not sure if I should invest in such a machine, recumbent bike for home use or not.
At the moment I think I will just follow my gym's trainer workout plan. Report


 

About The Author

Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.