How to Get Stronger If You're Overweight or Obese

Overweight women on an exercise ball
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There are a number of difficulties overweight and obese people face when it comes to exercise.

And, really, there are bigger obstacles you face in everyday life than exercise. Forget about getting to the gym: what if you have trouble even getting in and out of a car? If you struggle with simple movements, learn some functional exercises you can do in the privacy of your own home to work on your balance, strength, and mobility.

Functional Exercise

If you have trouble with movements like getting up from a chair, getting in and out of a car or up and down from curbs, this is where to start. Functional exercise means you're working on the very things you struggle with to improve quality of life.

1. Stepping Up and Down

A great place to start in functional exercise is with stepping. Daily life often involves stepping onto curbs and walking up and down stairs. A typical curb is about 2-6 inches high while the average flight of stairs may have 15 or more steps. Practicing your stepping at home can make it easier when you go out into the world.

How to Practice: Using a step, a nearby curb or a stair, step up with the right foot and then the left, holding onto the wall or a handrail for balance.

Step down with the right foot followed by the left and repeat on the right foot 10 times. Switch and repeat with the left foot.

Practice this each day, adding more repetitions and eventually balancing without holding onto anything.

If you use a Step, start with the top and add risers over time to add intensity.

Make It Harder: Stepping requires balance because there's a brief period when only one foot is on the floor.

Practice balance by trying this: Stand near a wall (just in case you need it) and lift the right foot off the floor, balancing on your left. See how long you can hold this position.

Lower and repeat with the left foot. To make it harder, close your eyes. Eventually, move away from the wall and try it on your own.

2. Standing Up and Down

Think about how many times you sit and stand each day—on chairs, couches, in cars, and on toilets.

If you have trouble with this activity, the simple act of sitting and standing can be frustrating. The average toilet is about 15 inches high, while the average chair is about 16-17 inches. That means you need to be able to squat down to 15 inches from the floor at least 10 times a day.

Squatting requires strength in the legs, abs and back as well as good balance and stability.

How to Practice: Using a familiar chair or even a toilet (with the lid down, of course), begin by sitting and standing 8 times.

Each day, practice sitting and standing, using armrests or handrails if you need to at first. Over time, add more repetitions and try to balance without holding onto anything.

Make it harder: If you want to progress, try squatting without sitting all the way down. By working against gravity and momentum, you'll strengthen your leg muscles, core and improve balance.

Try this: Place a chair behind you and sit down on it (so you know where it is). Then stand up and squat as though you're about to sit down. Stop a few inches above the chair, stand up and repeat.

3. Getting In and Out of a Car

This can be a tough one for everyone, not just the overweight or obese and, for some, the difficulty in maneuvering in and out of a small car is just one more reason you might be tempted to stay home.

By practicing this move, you can improve your strength and agility.

Try this: Sit in your car and practice getting out—step one leg out and then the other (try not to twist when you get out...this can cause back injuries). Now, use your hands to help push you up and out of the car and then sit back down and repeat.

Your goal is to be able to push yourself out of the car using the strength of your legs and torso rather than relying on pulling on the car door (which could slam on your fingers—ouch!).

Focused Strength Training

Now that you have some ideas for functional training, let's talk about a more focused approach with traditional moves.

Seated strength training is a great place to start if you're a beginner. Chair workouts can be a great starting point for many new exercisers.

There are many upper and lower body exercises you can do in a chair and, once you master these, you can move on to standing exercises to target balance, stability, strength, and better functionality.

Seated Strength Exercises

Just some moves you can do right now include:

  • Seated Slides - Sit in a chair with feet on paper plates and slide them back and forth, pushing into the plates and activating the hamstrings.
  • Leg Extensions - Sit tall in a chair and lift the right leg, extending the foot straight up and squeezing the front of your legs. Repeat for 10 or more reps on each side.
  • Band Lat Pull - Sitting in a chair, hold a band in each hand and pull the right arm down, bringing the elbow towards your torso to squeeze your back. Repeat for 10 or more reps on each side.

Ready for more? Try a seated full body workout you can try at home. Be sure to check with your doctor before you begin any type of exercise program, especially if you're obese, are on any medications or have been diagnosed with any medical conditions.

Staying mobile and being able to function well on a daily basis can improve quality of life and, yes, help you lose weight. By practicing the very activities you struggle with, you can build strength and confidence to help you move forward and reach even higher with your goals.

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