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Exercising When You're Overweight: Getting in Shape and Shedding Pounds

Richard B. Parr, EdD


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People who carry extra pounds are far from alone. A study (1) of US adults from 120218 through 1991 found 33% to be obese (defined as more than 20% overweight), 25% higher than in the years 1976 through 120210. If you are like many overweight people, you have tried dieting and exercising with varied success.

Whether you can walk only a bit or can jog at a decent clip, however, you can benefit from a sensible program emphasizing consistency, low intensity, and motivation. The program outlined below should be safe for most overweight people, but it's a good idea to check with a doctor before starting. It might not be appropriate for people who have heart disease, stroke, cancer, a disorder of the digestive system, or arthritis.

Exercise Bonuses

The benefits of exercise extend beyond weight control and added fitness. Physical activity lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes. In addition, overweight people can boost their self-control, self-confidence, and well being, as well as lessen stress and depression.

But exercise should be coupled with a low-calorie diet and motivational techniques like charting your progress. While the calorie deficit from exercise may be small compared with that of most diets, exercise can have quite an impact. If you walked 15 minutes a day and didn't take in more calories, for example, you could lose 10 pounds in a year.

Barriers to Bust

Before starting an exercise routine, it's important to recognize the likely barriers (table 1). Lack of time and lack of access to facilities or equipment are typical barriers for all people. It can be hard enough to make time for exercise alone. But important added techniques to help you stick with your program—like charting your progress—take even more time.

Table 1. Overcoming Exercise Barriers for Overweight People

Barrier Possible Solution

Lack of motivation or confidence Exercise with a friend or group for positive feedback
Keep a log of min/day of exercise; celebrate progress
Document health-related changes like better breathing
Join a group-exercise program to foster accountability
Lack of time Draw up a contract with specific weekly exercise goals
Seek support from significant others
Remember that all increases in activity count as exercise
Lack of access to facilities or equipment Increase calories burned in daily activities
Keep in mind that walking is always accessible
Previous negative experience Emphasize low-intensity exercise like walking
Determine the source of negativity and work through it
Get positive feedback from friends and relatives
Weight Know that activity becomes easier over time
Choose activities more suited to larger bodies, like biking
Poor balance Switch to an exercise that feels more natural
Try more non-weight-bearing activities, like swimming
Anxiety Progress slowly
Make exercise fun
Exercise with a friend
Discomfort, pain, or injury Switch to an exercise in which you bear less weight
Reduce intensity or duration

Other barriers may be unique to those who carry excess weight. For one thing, obese people often experience discomfort, pain, or injury early on or when advancing to a higher level. Although activities in which you bear weight expend more calories, they may cause more discomfort. Non-weight-bearing exercises such as biking or swimming may be better.

If you have poor balance or aren't very agile, choose options like walking that don't require a lot of athletic ability. Also, overweight exercisers can be haunted by the prospect of teasing, poor performance, and a feeling of inadequacy. Supportive friends and relatives can help.

Phasing in Fitness

Recent guidelines (2) recommend 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise on most or, preferably, all days. To lose weight, it's best to exercise 7 days a week if possible.

This, of course, may not be so easy. One big factor in exercising regularly is an accessible workout. Walking is not only accessible but one of the best activities for losing weight and gaining fitness. The ultimate goal is 60 minutes of walking or other comfortable exercise each day. But start with whatever you can comfortably achieve, even if it's only 1 minute. Begin at a leisurely pace.

For motivation, try advancing through levels of activity (table 2). Most people begin with phase 1—20 minutes of daily walking—and progress after 2 weeks to phase 2. (Don't worry about the 20-minute and 2-week goals. Do what you can and progress when you can.) The daily walk increases to 40 minutes in phase 2 and to 60 minutes in phase 3.

While intensity of exercise in the first three phases is not as important as consistency and duration, you may find that you naturally pick up the pace as you progress.

Table 2. Exercise Goals for Overweight People

Phase Activity Min/Day Duration* Comments

1 Walking 20 2 wk Begin with several short intervals if necessary; intensity not important
2 Walking 40 2 wk Gradually increase intensity
3 Brisk 60 Lifetime Walk briskly at least part of the walking time
4 Walking plus other exercises 60 Lifetime Increase intensity with recreational sports that help accumulate 60-min total

* These are guidelines. Your time in a given phase may be less or more.

In phase 4, add a variety of activities to complement walking for a total of 60 minutes. For instance, if you bicycle for 40 minutes, walk for 20 minutes. Activities like stationary cycling, swimming, water aerobics, and rowing can reduce joint pain and injuries. Circuit weight training is another phase-4 option that will help preserve muscle while you lose weight. Circuit training involves using low weights, high repetitions, and little rest between lifts.

Activity and Weight Loss for All

You can also lose extra pounds by adding activity to your lifestyle. Consider any increase in activity as part of your program, such as more trips up the stairs, parking the car farther from stores, and more walks to the mailbox. Exercise, like a healthy diet, is a lifestyle adaptation that should persist throughout life.


  1. Blackburn GL, Duyer J, Flanders WD, et al: Report of the American Institute of Nutrition (AIN) Steering Committee on Healthy Weight. J Nutr 1994;124(11): 2240-2243
  2. Pate RR, Pratt M, Blair SN, et al: Physical activity and public health: a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. JAMA 1995;273(5):402-407

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Parr is a professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Rehabilitation at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.