Fitness Articles

The Perfect Exercise Plan if You're Morbidly Obese

Don't Let Size Get In the Way

Sticking to an exercise program is difficult no matter who you are, but if your current weight puts you in the "morbidly obese" category, starting a new routine can come with some additional, unexpected challenges. While issues that plague all exercisers—like finding the time to sweat, discovering activities you enjoy or generally feeling out of shape—will arise, those with a significant amount of weight to lose might also struggle with finding exercises they can comfortably perform or those that can be done without having to get on the floor. If you're doubting your capabilities or think there's no way you can start exercising, know that you're wrong. Despite any insecurities or challenges, the benefits of regular activity far outweigh any of the negatives. You just have to take that first step to get started.

The National Institutes of Health define clinically severe obesity, or morbid obesity, as
  • Being 100 pounds or more above your ideal body weight
  • Or, having a Body Mass Index (BMI)of 40 or greater
  • Or, having a BMI of 35 or greater and one or more other (comorbid) conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
If you fall into one of these categories, the good news is that with a few simple modifications, you can create a workout program that helps you become fitter, increase strength and improve your ability to perform everyday activities with ease. 

Where to Start?

The first place to begin is with your doctor to get the "all-clear" before starting any exercise program. Once they've given you the green light, make sure you're prepared with proper footwear, comfortable workout clothes and a positive attitude to keep you motivated and going strong.

A well-rounded exercise program contains both cardio and strength training workouts. Walking, water exercise and stationary biking are all low-impact cardio options that are easy on the joints, which is an important consideration if you have a lot of weight to lose. By starting with a few minutes, a few times a day, you can quickly build endurance to try longer workouts as you become more fit.

If standing is an issue, SparkPeople's Limited Mobility Lifestyle Center has both cardio and strength workouts that can all be done from a seated position. Depending on how you carry the excess weight, some seated exercises can be difficult. The strength workout below contains both standing exercises that can be done using a chair for balance and seated exercises that are comfortable for an exerciser of any size.

Use this full-body strength program twice a week, starting with one set of each exercise (eight to 12 repetitions per set) and building up to two or three as you begin to need more of a challenge. Combine this with regular cardio exercise (starting with three days per week) and a healthy diet, and you'll be on the right track to reaching your goals!

A Full-Body Strength Workout for All Sizes

Equipment needed: chair and a set of dumbbells

Wide Leg Squats with Dumbbell: This exercise targets your quadriceps, which give you the strength to get up and down from a chair with ease. If balance is an issue, forgo the dumbbell and put a chair (facing out) in front of you. Hold on to the back of the chair lightly for balance. Only go as far as your body will allow without pain.
Wide Leg Squats with Dumbbell Exercise
Dumbbell Lateral Raises: Shoulders have a wide range of motion, which means they are more susceptible to injury. This exercise targets the muscles around the shoulder which aids in shoulder joint stability.
Dumbbell Lateral Raises Exercise
Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks: This exercise strengthens the back of the arm. If it's difficult to bend forward, stand more upright or do the exercise seated in a chair.
Dumbbell Triceps Kick Backs Exercise
Dumbbell Side Bends: Although this exercise requires a very small movement, it goes a long way to help strengthen the oblique muscles along the sides of your abdominals, resulting in a stronger core, better balance and improved posture.
Dumbbell Side Bends Exercise
Stationary Lunges with Dumbbells: This exercise does require balance, so for added stability put a chair on one side of your body, facing outward. Lightly hold the back of the chair with one hand and a dumbbell (or nothing at all) in the other. Switch sides after eight to 12 repetitions to complete one set.
Stationary Lunges with Dumbbells Exercise
Dumbbell Hammer Curls: This exercise, which targets the front of the arm, can also be done in a seated position if needed.
Dumbbell Hammer Curls Exercise
Seated Reverse Flys: While the demonstration shows this exercise on a stability ball, it can be done on a chair or standing instead. Only lean forward as far as feels comfortable. Even if you have to sit (or stand) taller, this exercise will still effectively target your upper back.
Dumbbell Reverse Flys Seated on Ball Exercise
Seated Leg Extensions: Concentrate on flexing the leg muscles slowly and in control for this exercise. If you can't bring your leg all the way out to straighten your knee, that's okay; bring it out as far as you feel comfortable.
Seated Leg Extensions Exercise
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Elbows should start at 90 degrees before you push the weights up over your head without arching the back. This exercise can be done seated or standing.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press Exercise

If one set of each of these exercises is too much, start with just a few of them or decrease the number of repetitions. If 10 minutes of cardio exercise is more than you can handle, start with less time. The important thing to remember is that something is always better than nothing. If you can get into a consistent routine, you'll quickly see your fitness level improve.

Even small amounts of exercise add up when it comes to weight loss and your overall health. Don't let your weight hinder you from working toward something you truly want to achieve. Finding activities you enjoy and establishing habits you can live with forever make it easier to stay consistent. Don't be afraid to modify as needed, take it one day at a time and eventually, you'll reach all the health and fitness goals you've been hoping to achieve!

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Member Comments

  • Find pilates, HITT and blogilates works great for me:


  • Such an useful post thank you
  • When I want to keep or print an article I first copy and paste it to my MICROSOFT WORD. From there it is so easy to save or print. This one was worth keeping.
  • It is so, so easy to become discouraged when you feel as if you are not able to do any ( or most of ) the exercises that "normal" sized people can. This article goes a long way towards reassuring that exercise IS possible - no matter your size or abilities!!

    Thank you so much for posting and sharing it here!
  • I’m 62 years old and have a few health problems. My doctor sent me to rehab for strength and stamina. The exercises I did were similar to these. I think they started me out working out too hard. Even though it didn’t seem over challenging, it caused my hip to have a lot of pain. I couldn’t do anything for 2-3 weeks. I am now gradually getting back into exercise, but taking it slower. So, be sure to not over do it.
  • Great article! Wish it came in a printable. :-)
  • I am not morbidly obese but I have found this article to be very encouraging. It is written very well for those of us who are overweight but who find exercising difficult for one reason or another. It explains very well how to ease oneself into a regime of exercise without causing injury and encourages the reader to start slowly and gradually build up which is so helpful to anyone, obese or not, who wants to get back into exercising. Thank you.
  • Others have said it and I'll repeat it. What size weight for each exercise? I'll see if there are any answers on the Message Boards.
    Looks like the person in the article image needs a different program as they are a bad representation of fitness and good health.

    While I believe that one can perform exercises regardless of current weight, I do not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to fitness programs. People wanting to lose weight need a different program than those training for a run or improving heart health.
  • These are good exercises for older people too.
  • The weights come in different weights ? Where to start ? Good article
  • Good article with lots of relevant information! :-)
  • good info and great help!
  • Anyone can move their body

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist, behavior change specialist and functional training specialist. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.
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