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

Getting Off To a Good Start
  -- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
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: 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.