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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.
By Pamela Babcock
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

When you have a lot of weight to lose, it can be hard to work out. Not only is it physically uncomfortable, but there are often emotional challenges, too -- particularly if you feel too out of shape to go to a gym filled with buff bodies and wall-to-wall mirrors.

Amy Stevens has been there. The 38-year-old from Erwin, Tenn., has shed 151 pounds in the past year and a half, down from 368 pounds.

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“Making exercise part of my life was a major challenge,” Stevens says. But she did it.

Here’s advice -- from Stevens and health and fitness experts -- you can use to get started.

A Turning Point

Stevens had been overweight since high school but had an eye-opening experience while snorkeling in Barbados. She couldn’t hoist herself up the ladder into the boat. Two men had to pull her back in.

“It took that kind of shock to the system to really get my attention,” Stevens says.

She joined Weight Watchers online and now weighs 217 pounds -- 49 pounds shy of her goal.

Exercise has played a key role in her weight loss success. But, she admits, “It was absolutely terrifying to get started.”

Small Steps Pay Off

Stevens began walking a sixth of a mile around her neighborhood every day. “I was huffing and puffing at the end of it, but I just made myself do it,” she says.

Fearing the thought of walking into a co-ed gym, Stevens first turned to the women-only Curves fitness center franchise. The supportive atmosphere eased her fears. She stayed a year, working out three to five days a week.

In December 2009, Stevens read about The Couch-to-5K Running Plan on a weight loss message board and downloaded the program's podcast. She began running 60 seconds the first day. After nine weeks, she was able to run 30 minutes ever day.

Stevens now works out at a wellness center near her job and has added strength training to her routine. She regularly runs 5Ks. She admits she’s not very speedy. "But I finish," she says, "and I’m proud of that.”

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.

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