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Exercising When You’re Overweight

When you're overweight or obese, working out can be uncomfortable in more ways than one. Here's help.

Danger: Emotional Hurdles Ahead

Stevens wasn’t alone in her fear of getting started. Research shows that mental barriers often hamper obese women’s efforts to get exercise.

In a study at Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education, researchers looked at data from 278 obese and normal-weight women. When it came to exercise, they found that obese women were more likely to say they were self-conscious, afraid of injury, and daunted by the effort as well as report minor aches and pains. And they were less likely to be exercising a year later.

Get Support

A key challenge is “getting started and feeling supported," says Gerald K. Endress, MS, fitness director of the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. and an American College of Sports Medicine-registered clinical exercise physiologist.

“Most obese people just don’t think they can do anything,” Endress says.

Endress recommends going to your doctor to make sure he or she understands what kind of exercise you’re planning to do.

Stevens did just that. Her doctor’s advice? “Just try. But if there’s pain, you’ve got to listen to your body,” she says.

To stay motivated, it often helps to work with a trainer who has experience with obese people or to go to a wellness center affiliated with a hospital that offers low-impact classes such as chair or water aerobics for special populations.

Endress also recommends recumbent exercise, which is done lying down, such as on a recumbent bike or recumbent stepper, because it “supports the back and is easier on the knees and hip joints.”

Easy Does It

People should embark on a fitness program gradually because they may have underlying health issues such as high blood pressure or diabetes or be prone to shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and overheating.

You can gradually work up to elliptical trainers. The key is to not sign up for a boot camp workout like on television’s The Biggest Loser because that may be too much, too soon.

It’s best to get to the point where you can exercise 30 minutes comfortably three or four times a week before progressing to something more intense. It’s OK to break things up. If you can’t exercise 30 minutes at one time, aim for three 10-minute segments, Endress says.

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