Best Starter Exercises for Larger Bodies

Updated June 2, 2022
Overweight woman exercising in park, happy and smile in morning during sunlight

If you've been diagnosed with obesity and you're considering starting an exercise program, there are plenty of options to choose from. Health clubs offer classes and personal training services, you'll find specialized forms of exercise (like spinning or rowing) in boutique studios, or you can exercise at home using apps or online resources.

However, finding the best exercise when you have a larger body can be challenging. Sometimes, excess weight can put stress on your bones, joints, and ligaments. Not every form of exercise may be comfortable for you. But starting an exercise program can help you to take charge of your health, and you may be surprised by the improvements you see in just a short period of time.

Exercise and Obesity

Health experts suggest that getting regular exercise is one of the most important things we can do to improve our overall health. As a very general guideline, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that adults sit less and move more. They say that any physical activity that reduces the amount of time you spend sitting can boost your health. But they provide more specific guidelines to gain substantial health benefits.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans compiled by HHS, adults should get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. You can also combine vigorous and moderate activity throughout the week to reach your goal. And participating in more than 300 minutes of aerobic activity per week provides additional health benefits. They also suggest that adults participate in resistance training at least two days per week.

Exercise provides special benefits for people with obesity. In a research review published in the Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome, study authors reported that participating in an aerobic exercise program can lead to a 2-3% loss in body weight for those with obesity even if there is no dietary intervention. They also found that regular exercise can help prevent weight regain.

The European Association for the Study of Obesity says that exercise also provides benefits that go beyond the scale. For instance, they advise that regular physical activity can help lower blood pressure, boost heart health, and even improve quality of life in those living in larger bodies. For these reasons and many others, the Endocrine Society recommends exercise in the management and treatment of obesity.

However, The Obesity Society notes that some people with excess weight may experience impaired exercise tolerance. So choosing the best exercise for larger bodies may be key to finding a program that is both enjoyable and sustainable.

The Best Exercise for Larger Bodies

There is no one-size-fits-all workout routine that is perfect for everyone. But there are a few basic styles of exercise that are better suited for people with bigger bodies, especially if you are just starting out. These are activities that put less strain on your joints but can help to improve metabolic health and promote weight loss if that is your goal.

If you are new to exercise or if you are returning to exercise after a long time off, check with your healthcare provider. They may be able to provide suggestions or modifications to make your program safer and more effective.

Walking

A large build man jogging on empty road

One of the best (and easiest!) ways to start a workout routine is to simply walk around your neighborhood or on the trails at a local park. Not only is this form of exercise easily accessible, but it will also work your entire lower body as you increase your heart rate and use your legs, hips, and glutes to stride along. In addition to the cardiovascular and muscular endurance benefits, you may also enhance your bone density by performing this weight-bearing form of exercise.

If walking isn't challenging enough, you may even phase into light jogging to challenge your body and improve your overall fitness. Start by incorporating short segments of jogging into your walk. Gradually increase the length of the jogging segments and decrease the walking segments until you are comfortable jogging for the entire duration.

Circuit Training

Hitting the gym for a traditional strength training routine may feel overwhelming if you are not familiar with the equipment, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't find a way to incorporate strength training into your exercise routine. Circuit training essentially combines a cardiovascular workout with strength training. It is a workout that incorporates short segments of different exercises performed without taking a break.

By doing strength training exercises back-to-back with little to no rest in between, you'll increase your heart rate and work your lungs while also increasing muscle mass. You can set up a circuit at home using dumbbells, exercise bands, or stability balls. No equipment? No problem. Do bodyweight exercises (like a squat or a modified push-up) to raise your heart rate and build strength. Try setting up a home-based circuit training routine or check with your local fitness center to see if they have an easy circuit routine set up that you can follow.

Cycling

Overweight woman riding on bicycle.

If you're looking for a way to get a good cardiovascular workout without added stress on your ankles, knees, and hips, you may want to take up cycling. You can try a stationary exercise bike or you can take your routine outside on a traditional bike. Either way, you'll strengthen your legs and improve your cardiovascular health without having to place too much weight on your lower body.

If a traditional bike is not comfortable, consider a recumbent bicycle. Recumbent bikes have a "bucket seat" that allows you to extend your legs in front of your body. A recumbent seat is larger and usually well padded, making the ride more comfortable.

Swimming

Many people consider swimming to be the best form of exercise because it works the entire body at the same time. But it can be especially appealing to people with larger bodies because, in the water, you can get a good workout without suffering joint pain that is often associated with weight-bearing forms of exercise. You can choose to swim laps, join a group exercise program, or simply walk in the water (called aqua jogging).

High-Intensity Interval Training

If you are healthy enough for vigorous activity and you don't have a lot of time for workouts, you might want to consider HIIT or high-intensity interval training. This type of workout generally takes 20 minutes or less and involves participating in short segments of very hard work separated by short rest periods.

While this type of training is not always the best option for beginners (the risk of injury and burnout is higher) studies have suggested that HIIT is more effective than traditional forms of exercise for improving cardiorespiratory fitness and reducing body fat in people with obesity.

Should You Exercise to Lose Weight?

While some experts may recommend exercise and weight loss for people with obesity, it doesn't mean that this approach is right for everyone. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Physical activity can help you to celebrate and enjoy your body's capabilities regardless of weight.

The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) is a non-profit organization that promotes alternatives to taking a weight-centered approach to health management. As part of their Health At Every Size (HAES) principles, they "support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose."

The bottom line? While exercise can provide substantial health benefits to anyone of any size, no one should feel pressured to participate simply for the purpose of changing a number on the scale. If you are motivated to start a new workout routine, explore different options to find a type of exercise that you enjoy. Voice your goals to trusted family members and friends. Schedule your workouts and treat them like any other appointment. You may even want to consider signing up for several personal training sessions. Knowing someone's waiting for you at the gym can really help motivate you to stick to your goals.

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Best Starter Exercises for Larger Bodies