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

Kudos to this article. We don't have enough advise like this in our society today. We fall into victimhood mode and convince ourselves that it's not us doing it to ourselves, but something exterior that makes us look and feel the way we do. It's not just weight, it's attitude and mindset. We say to ourselves, "maybe it was my childhood, maybe it was my divorce, maybe it was just the way I was born or it's in my genes, maybe maybe maybe. I was stuck in all those excuses. I was depressed. Who wouldn't be making up those excuses for not taking responsibility for my life. I finally had a psychologist force me to consider that I did have choices, that life was a bundle of choices, that a healthy life was a choice, that the way I viewed the world around me was a choice, no matter what my past entailed. I hated him for it because if felt more mentally comfortable to convince myself I had no responsibility for what I was doing and feeling, but it was the wake up call I needed. I am eating for health now, I'm not dieting. The weight loss is a by-product. The fad diets killed my health, resulted in the loss of my gall bladder and made me miserable. I'm so much better now. Thank you for this article! Report
So good! My a-ha moment came when my doctor diagnosed Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension on top of my autoimmune disease, and said, "it's your life". I gave myself a spa membership for my birthday and progressed from 1.5 mph on the treadmill to over 3 mph, from size 18 to size 8 jeans and resolution of the diabetes and hyprtension. The arthritic knee was too far gone from the years of obesity such that I had to have it replaced, but I have managed to maintain the 65 pound weight loss for three years. Watching the other spandex goddesses at the spa did not deter me - they were there for a different motivation. The biggest thing was getting over the excuses and just doing it - it was my life. Report
This is a very good article and just what I need to hear today. Report
Excellent article, looking forward to parts 2 and 3. Report
Thank you for your article; I too look forward to the following two. In the many years past I've been overweight for many of the reasons you listed...as I've grown older - in my mind I've not gotten older!-I try different exercises but my favorite is still walking. Only the problem of sore feet and legs persist...I will conquer these obstacles! Again, thanks for your article...it encourages me to not make the same excuses over and over... Report
thank you Report
Thank You for the great information. Report
TRIMNUP
I appreciate your "The main idea is to start where you are right now." That's how I began my journey. When something doesn't work or stops working, I add a few new movements or find a different exercise routine. Report
Doesn't matter my size, I walk daily! Report
Heavy--thin --nothing keeps me from exercising. Report
Osteoporosus can kill indirectly. My fairly active grandmother had a hip fracture on a 3 step unit and fell. She survived the surgery, but threw a blood clot and died several days later before she was discharged. Report
Great article..thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for the article! Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Great article 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.
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