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

  • Great article. Looking forward to reading part 2 & 3. Thank you.
  • Loved your article. It's like you're in my head. Off to find part 2 :) .
  • I loved the article and got a lot of insights!
  • Thank You for a great article. I have shared it with several people.
  • Really enjoyed your up front talk. You are right. Its all excuses. Thank you for letting us all know you have been there and got thru it. I cant stand it when thing are sugar coated. It going to be hard, you are going to hurt, but if you don't DO it, it will get worst. Make up you mind, not excuses. Cant want to read Part two and three. Thanks again. Bless you!
  • I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming. ~Rodney Dangerfield
  • I loved the article... but I wanted to add a few things.

    A LOT of people cannot afford the gym or places where they can physically exercise. So, here are some additional pointers that should be added.

    Silver Sneakers is available in almost ALL disabled medical insurance, which is a membership to the YMCA or a similar place where there is a pool available.

    MOST medical insurance provides some physical therapy, usually about 12 to 32 days each year. USE it, let the professionals tell you what to do to avoid hurting yourself. They physical therapist uses should focus on areas you are having trouble. Tell your doctor if you stopped walking around the block because your knee is killing you... etc. you can go to therapy and they will tell you how to fix it and stop it from happening again.

    ALSO, MANY physical therapy places, IF you are a patient, offer a discount to use the equipment when you are out of therapy hours with your insurance. It will be cheaper than most gyms. Ask around your area and the next time you have to go to therapy, go there.

    I can't "walk" around, God only knows how much I miss running and biking, but I am unfortunate enough that it isn't likely going to be any time soon that I can do those things. Organizations like the YMCA let you apply to get a discount. IF there is a local gym with a pool, ask about providing discounts or such and how you can apply to them.

    Don't give up, if you are limited, ask people for advise, ask the doctor, ask the physical therapist, see if there are options. I know so many disabled people who have no idea that they have Silver Sneakers which gives them YMCA membership. I also know that most people have no idea that the physical therapy centers offer discounts for their use after therapy runs out.
    I am 280 pounds and take Yoga and Tai Chi classes, work with weights and get in the pool. I don't like how I look but that is why I do it.
  • Thanks for the article!
  • 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!
    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!

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.