“But Doc, I’m Too Heavy to Exercise!”

I’ve written elsewhere about the death-defying aspect of exercise and myriad other health benefits of regular physical activity.

Very heavy folks potentially have more to gain in terms of health and longevity compared to skinny people. So it’s a cruel irony that the heavier you are, the harder it is exercise. At some point even light exercise becomes impossible.

Average-height women tipping the scales at about 280 pounds (127 kg) and men at 360 pounds (164 kg) aren’t going to be able to jog around the block, much less run a marathon. These weights are 100 percent over ideal or healthy levels. An actual “exercise program” probably won’t be possible until some weight is lost simply through very-low-carb eating, calorie restriction, or bariatric surgery. The initial exercise goal for you may just be to get moving through activities of daily living and perhaps brief walks and calisthenics while sitting in a chair.

“I’ll get started after I finish this cigarette.”

Markedly obese people who aren’t up to the aforementioned extreme weights can usually tolerate a low-intensity physical activity program. At 50 percent over ideal weight, an average-height woman of 210 pounds (95 kg) is carrying 70 excess pounds (32 kg) of fat. Her male counter-part lugs around 90 pounds (41 kg) of unnecessary fat. This weight burden causes dramatic breathlessness and fatigue upon exertion, and makes the joints and muscles more susceptible to aching and injury.

If you’re skinny, just imagine trying to walk or run a mile carrying a standard five-gallon (19 liter) water cooler bottle, which weighs only 43 pounds (19.5 kg) when full. The burden of excess fat makes it quite difficult to exercise.

If you’re markedly obese, several tricks will enhance your exercise success. I want you to avoid injury, frustration, and burn out. Start with light activity for only 10 or 15 minutes, gradually increase session length (e.g., by two to four minutes every two to four weeks) and increase exercise intensity only after several months. Your joints and muscles may appreciate easy, low-impact exercises such as stationary cycling, walking, swimming, and pool calisthenics/water aerobics.

You may also benefit from the advice of a personal fitness trainer arranged through a health club, gym, or YMCA/YWCA. Check out several health clubs before you join. Some of them are primarily meat markets for beautiful slender yuppies. You may feel more comfortable in a gym that welcomes and caters to overweight people. Hospitals are increasingly developing fitness centers with obese orthopedic, heart, and diabetic patients in mind.

Steve Parker, M.D.

4 responses to ““But Doc, I’m Too Heavy to Exercise!”

  1. I suggest that instead of running, folk can try kickbiking as the scooter supports your weight and the major weight bearing is always on the support leg not on each leg as it is pushed to the road surface.That touch is always rather light. Kickbiking is jogging on wheels without the downward push strain that you get from peddling a bicycle or the challenge of mounting the seat.

  2. They should see if there is a personal trainer who specializes in working with obese clients in their area. A non-judgemental tailored program and encouragement can be very powerful.

    Kick biking sounds like a great idea. There is also a company in New England that makes bikes and adult trikes for heavy riders. Most bikes aren’t stressed to take riders over about 220 pounds.

    • Good points, scrandall. My family enjoys Razor scooters. You have to be careful which model you get because they do indeed have a weight limit that might surprise you with a spill.

      -Steve