When you’re obese, though, even the simplest movements take extra effort and can cause pain. Exercise may even be risky if you also suffer from cardiovascular disease, arthritis or muskoskeletal disorders. Ease into fitness gradually with body-weight cardio and strength exercises that avoid putting undue stress on the joints. Get clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise program, and heed any modifications he recommends to protect your health.
Getting Started With Body-Weight Exercise
Emphasize low-intensity cardiovascular exercise when you first start. Work your way up to the 150 minutes recommended weekly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’ve been relatively sedentary, this amount can be overwhelming at first. Taking a 10-minute walk one to three times per day just to get your body accustomed to movement might be enough at first.
Give yourself permission to do low-intensity cardio activity and expand the time you spend being active, rather than worrying about how hard you’re working. Walking, water fitness — such as swimming laps, water aerobics or water walking — and recumbent cycling all use your body weight to move in rhythmic, dynamic activity to raise your heart rate and burn calories. Cycling and water activity are particularly helpful to anyone with joint pain, as you’re not required to bear all your body weight on your knees, ankles and hips. Once 30 minutes on most days feels doable, increase the duration of activity you do daily to 60 minutes or more.
Start and finish every session with five minutes at a very easy pace. Your intensity should be such that you can still hold a conversation. Being able to achieve a higher intensity during your workouts will come with time, weight loss and increased stamina.
The Importance of Building Muscle
Resistance training challenges your muscles so they become stronger, and you’ll become more functional in everyday life. It also increases your body’s ratio of muscle to fat, which boosts your metabolism. If you’re overweight, chances are you have more muscle tissue than a lighter person, and strength training can help you hold onto that muscle as you lose weight. Having less fat can also improve how you feel. Fat is metabolically active and releases compounds and hormones that zap your energy and make you feel poorly. Typical body-weight exercises, especially for the legs, hips and buttocks, can be stressful on the joints, though.
Resistance Exercises for the Obese
Squats, lunges and step-ups may simply hurt, and you may not get the proper range of motion when you’re obese. Train your legs with seated leg extensions, done by sitting in a chair, lifting one leg and extending and bending the knee. Repeat with the other side. Stand beside the chair and use it for support as you raise and lower your leg to the side to work the abductor, or outer hip, muscles. If you can get into an all-fours position, do a quadruped leg extension — or donkey kick. Lift one leg and, keeping the knee bent, press the foot up toward the ceiling. Do all repetitions on one leg and then switch.
Perform pushups against a counter or sturdy wall to tone your chest and fronts of your shoulders. Sit back in the chair and reach your arms up and overhead to work your shoulders. Shrug your shoulders up and roll them down your back to activate the upper back muscles as well as the tops and backs of the shoulders. Rotate your neck, wrists and ankle joints to improve mobility.
Eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise suffices, but you can work up to as many as 25 repetitions to build muscle endurance. Do exercises at least twice per week, and work up to more as possible. Some of the body-weight exercises, such as pressing your arms overhead or leg extensions, can be done daily if you feel OK.
Everyday Movement Counts
Getting up and down from a seated position can take a lot of effort when you’re obese, but it strengthens your hips and legs. Walking, even for short distances, also helps contribute to your overall physical activity level. For example, get up to change the channel on the television, rather than using a remote; fill your own glass of water, rather than asking for assistance.
Focus on the movements you can do, rather than ones you feel you can’t. You don’t have to become super skinny or tremendously fit to reap the benefits of a more active lifestyle. A paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2010 showed that improved cardiovascular fitness lowers your risk of early death from all causes, regardless of your age, body composition or gender. The paper concluded that regular exercise also diminishes the risk of mortality associated with obesity.
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