Exercise at 200+ Pounds is a Struggle (It’s Also the Way Out of the Struggle)
Getting fit when you weigh more than 200 pounds is the ultimate struggle. At my highest weight (240 pounds), my day was consumed with work, family and food. And while I always did some form of exercise (walking and dancing), I never felt like a fit person or gained mastery in a sport that I could claim as my own. At my top weight, let’s face it, the last thing on my mind was exercise. I liked to exercise, but I didn’t think it liked me back. It was hard to overcome the inertia and comfort of the couch to get into awkward positions, sweat bucket-fulls or feel stupid amongst other exercisers who I perceived were so much better at it than me.
I went on like this for most of my adult life, until my early 50s when I began to chip away at the layers of doubt, fear and false self-talk to make exercise a consistent part of my life. That consistency brought me to a realization: I could become fit, and I could even become part of a fitness community, but I would have to turn off the self-doubt and get to work. Fitness was a prize I would have to work hard for. So, I got to work (and this time, I stuck to it). Let me show you how I got fit by breaking down the process. If I could get fit at a start weight of 240, so can you.
Building a Fitness Mindset
There was a slow progression from walking and dancing (which I still do frequently) to rowing, strength training and then spinning. With each new exercise I tried, I slowly built a fitness mindset. That mindset allowed me to tackle new types of exercise and seek new workout experiences with greater confidence levels. The result: I’m now 60+ pounds lighter, and I went from a size 2x to a 12 (in jeans). Exercise, especially cross-training (rotating through various types of exercises), has been the bedrock of my weight-loss plan.
The real secret was being determined, consistent and showing up for each workout (one at a time) until I felt empowered, strong and fit enough to envision myself as a fit person. That feeling of being a fit person seeped into my eating habits and lifestyle. Things began to click into place, and staying on a healthy eating plan didn’t feel like a punishment; it felt like self-care. I ate better to support my body so it could continue to exercise. When that shift happened, I became a lifelong exerciser, reaping the rewards of weight loss, stress management, a sleeker physique, better functional body movement for my daily activities, self-love and pride.
Don’t Forget Nutrition (the Other Side of the Weight Loss Equation)
Exercise is the flipside of healthy eating when it comes to weight loss. If weight loss were a simple equation, one part would be exercise, the other part would be healthy eating, and the exponent would be consistent effort. You must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, so please don’t ignore your nutrition. Don’t work out consistently and then eating poorly. Exercise (especially strength training) should be the complement to your healthy eating plan. It is a woman’s best friend for shedding fat and slimming down, so you look better in (and out of) clothes. You’ll also build a badass mindset that helps you gain momentum to stick with your healthy habits long enough to lose weight and get fit.
Cultivate a Get-to-Work Attitude
If you are starting (or restarting) the process of trying to get fit, and you weigh more than 200 pounds, I know exercise will feel like a herculean battle. At first. It isn’t just a matter of jumping on a spin bike, running a mile or lifting weights. When you weigh more than 200 pounds, even small movements can feel like a lot, especially if you have knee or back pain (common among those who carry extra weight).
Aside from the physical challenges—the pain, the lack of endurance and aerobic capacity— many of us have felt inadequate to tackle workouts. It’s hard to feel like you belong: the tight, constricting workout gear seems to exist solely to emphasize your rolls of fat; you think everyone is looking at you (and judging you) when you exercise. If you’ve ever jogged around an outdoor course or visited the weight room of a gym, you know how impossible it seems that you will ever feel like you belong. But, moving more (and building a consistent exercise plan) is essential to weight and fat loss, so it’s time to overcome the fear and get it done.
10 Tips to Help You Stick to an Exercise Routine (and Become Fit)
If you are going to stick with your exercise routine at your highest weight, you’ll have to shift your thinking. Building a new fitness mindset will make it easier to commit (and recommit) to exercise (even when your body and mind are screaming to stop). Here are my 10 tips for sticking to an exercise routine when you weigh more than 200 pounds:
#1 Use S.M.A.R.T. Goals: Create 1 or 2 small S.M.A.R.T. goals and focus on them exclusively. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. A S.M.A.R.T. goal (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) is stated in this form: I will row for 20 minutes three times per week. Write down these 1-2 goals and put them in a place where you will see them every day. They are your guide, and you will measure your success (in part) by how well you stick to your exercise schedule to meet this goal. You can use my S.M.A.R.T. goal worksheet.
#2 Track Workouts: Measure your success by tracking your exercise sessions. Tracking is not meant to penalize you when/if you don’t stick to the schedule with 100% accuracy. It is to see when you do stick to your schedule. What did you do to get that workout in? What was your mindset? If you did 2 out of 3 workout sessions for the week, you would see from your tracker that you completed eight workout sessions over a month. That’s eight more than you did last month. Progress, not perfection. You are trying to build the habit of doing exercise, so frequency and consistency are essential.
#3 Choose Low-Impact Cardio: Pick an exercise that is 200+-pound friendly, BUT make sure you love it (or at least don’t think it sucks). You deserve to do an exercise that feels good to your body; I don’t believe exercise should feel like torture to be effective. You are looking for an exercise that is gentle on your joints (knees, ankles, feet).
Good options: walking, swimming, rowing, biking and the elliptical. Walking is a great first exercise for heavier people because it’s easier on the joints. Water-based activities (swimming, water aerobics classes) are also ideal for reducing the load on joints. Rowing is an excellent low-impact option, but remember to focus on good form and a slower stroke rate. You are looking for a go-to exercise that feels good to your body—I call it a base cardio.
#4 Cross Train: Rotate exercises with cross-training, so you don’t do the same workout every day. This will give some muscles and joints rest while you work other ones. Cross-training allows you to get new workouts into rotation; it adds variety and novel experiences, keeping your workouts fresh and exciting.
For example, you might choose a structured group fitness program that has variety built into it; I used Beachbody’s 21 Day Fix workouts at first; the 30-minute workouts included cardio and strength-building movements. It was easy to plan them into any day, ensuring that I got it done. The structure of this first workout program was helpful, especially at my heaviest weight of 240 pounds. As I lost weight and enjoyed my workouts more, I joined a gym and started rowing, weight lifting and spinning.
#5 Create a Judgement-Free Zone: Do not judge yourself unless you are telling yourself how awesome you are. If you weigh more than 200 pounds and you are exercising consistently, you are an awesome badass!! I don’t care how much you lift, how far you walk, how fast your pace is; your consistent effort means you will be successful. Track your workouts, but don’t obsess over the numbers. Your success (and your ability to form new healthy habits) will be measured by how consistently you show up to do your workouts.
#6 Partial Workouts Count: If you start a workout but can’t finish, or can’t complete all reps of a class, just keep moving. Partial workouts count. I find that workout instructors often go at a pace that is too fast for me. I’m not them, so I go at my pace. I still get results! If you are too sore initially to do your full workout, commit to doing at least 10-15 minutes. Don’t stop working out, but do ease up on the amount and intensity.
Moving consistently for 15 minutes will keep those tight, sore joints and muscles moving, and that’s what we want. If you picked a moderate exercise like walking, this should not be difficult. Doing three 15-minute walks per week is better than doing one 30-minute walk and skipping the other two sessions because you are working to create the exercise habit. Doing less more often will help build that muscle memory.
#7 Modify Exercises So You Can Do Them: Most online exercise routines feature modified versions of each exercise. Don’t be too proud to do those modifications! It’s better to do a modified version of a movement with good form than to try to do a challenging move but use poor form. You risk injury, and you won’t get the most benefit out of the exercise. Here’s a beginner’s guide to modifying some popular exercises.
#8 Get into the Rhythm: Add some rhythmic exercises to your routines. Walking and rowing are great rhythmic exercises. The natural, repetitive motion of walking sets up a good feeling of momentum. Perhaps walk to the beat of some music or count steps around a track rhythmically. I like the sound of my indoor water rower. The swoosh of the water is relaxing to me as I take my strokes. Tapping into a rhythmic movement builds muscle memory and can align your mind with your body’s movements. Sticking to exercise is as much a mind game as it is a physical one.
#9 Wear Good Gear: Take care of your skin with good protective gear. Buy a well-fitting, quality sports bra to reduce chaffing around the underarms and breasts. Consider buying nylon leggings instead of sweatpants to reduce inner thigh chaffing. Get comfortable sneakers that provide a broad, stable footbed to support your body weight during exercise. If your feet are unhappy during your workouts, you won’t last long.
#10 Strength Train: I added this last because I want you to leave with this on your mind. Doing cardio will protect your heart health and burn some calories, but lifting weights is essential for fat burning, building lean muscle, shedding fat and boosting metabolism. It also gives you a sense of power and vitality that can’t be matched (even by the endorphin-loving cardio moves). Whether it’s a kettlebell routine, a circuit of upper- and lower-body strength moves or a bodyweight/resistance band workout, strength training is where it’s at. Please don’t wonder if you will get bulky from lifting weights—read here and let’s end this ridiculous debate once and for all.
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