Fitness Articles

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

Getting Off To a Good Start

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

  • Absolutely love this! I decided in 2014 to make a lifestyle change. It's frustrating when doctor's and trainers alike think you can actually do mountain climbers with at 300lbs complete with baby kangaroo pouch! I am the queen of modification and have slowly learned to not focus on weight but on actual physical goals that make me feel really good about myself. (i.e., .5 second plank turned to 10 sec, 20 sec, and now I'm almost to a full minute!) Planking is hard when you wight 250!
  • One of my main goals and lifelong mission is to show people YES, you can exercise and truly feel and look better. I know I have achieved this when people write to us with their success in losing and maintaining weight I beam with pleasure when people use the word fun and exercise in the same sentence! Have fun and get fit with me! Jodi Stolove, Chair Dancing® Fitness
    Thank you for this EXCELLENT article. Rather than diving in, I'm getting my head straight first...but will not take too long to do that!
    Good job!
    Good article. Thanks for writing it.

    That second paragraph about, "What if I succeeded? Then I would have _? I definitely understand that sentence because I had in the last five months lost thirteen pounds but, gained them back within a month and half.
    I know one of my issues is stress; also, when people begin to take notice and compliment me on my weight loss. Hmm, where do I go with the compliments and the sudden attention? When one is obese he or she is used to the negative attention or no attention. This has happened before people start to notice and I get scared probably because I do not know where to go after all of the nice comments.

    Maybe I am thinking I had arrived? So now I can start slowly eating more of the incorrect foods and not exercising as much. I did better just walking than when I went to a gym. I became more conscious of the other people in the gym. I was usually the largest female in the room. Then you always have those who will show off by doing 100 reps on some piece of equipment and that can be intimidating.

    However, I will not give up. Every day we can choose to begin again.
  • Bless you for the frank talk. Able-bodied people who don't have health issues or have gone through traumatic medical procedures simply don't understand. I've had two open heart surgeries in the past six years, and just realized recently how much -mental- scarring I have that was having physical consequences. I feel like I need to start out "small" and just work my way up, not only in a physical sense, but in a mental sense to prove that I -am- capable of doing it without having something bad happen. THANK YOU.
  • I just want to thank you for writing this! Best thing I've read in a while. What an inspiration to think of your success in where you came from. That's just simply AWESOME!
  • This is such a slippery slope...and it should not be! Very few individuals have always been strong and fit. Most began their journey out of shape, exhausted, discouraged, and more importantly...out of excuses. I know all tooooooo well. You don't earn yourself a new set of knees when you are 47 because your life is all grins and giggles. Just begin doing one healthy thing that gets you moving a little bit. Do the work you need to do (as in finding what will work for you: research, watch videos, read blogs, whatever) for you to do it...ya need to own it. There is a reason it is called a work out. Build slowly, modify, and find a way to exercise your strong. It is empowering to do this for yourself. You will be amazed by how much better you feel and how much easier it will be to move.
  • Excellent article. Thank you so much taking time to write it. I am now at my heaviest EVER and have been back to Spark since Wednesday (this week). I know it works here and I know I need to keep involved and read all I Can for encouragement. So THANK YOU AGAIN, this was my first piece and agree. Now onto my journey, again.
  • Great article. It would be nice if Spark People had a section of videos for larger people. I've done some of the chair workouts and other workouts that come up under beginner and I cannot imagine trying to do any of those if I were a newbie in the 300+ pound range.
  • When I started back in 2011 I was over 220 lbs and hadn't done much at all in years. I wanted to make changes so that I would get healthier and not keep gaining weight. My first step was just to move more and I committed to parking further from work and stores and finding opportunities to walk and take the stairs. It added up Walking is a great way to start and you can do it anywhere.
  • articleis inspiring and practical. Oh I see the author and love all articles.
  • RMUL2013
    Wonderful article! How true it is. Been there, done that and still trying to do it. I just needed a kick in the you know where to get me motivated again.
  • Great article! And I love KCOCEAN's comment. I have some inspiring people in my gym classes who astound me with their attitudes and grit. They might be old in years, have a significant disability, and/or history of serious illness or injury, but they are often the best in class!
  • MARYG321
    Thank You, just what I needed to read.
  • LAB8488
    Just what I needed today. I agree with Dezireme2 from 2015. I am in shock with my weight, bad knees, fibromyalgia and just coming off of rotator cuff surgery. I love the pool, but also needed other exercises. I can't wait to try the chair and other exercise videos here! Thanks so much Spark People

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.

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