How to Get Stronger If You Are Overweight or Obese

Overweight women on an exercise ball

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If you are overweight or obese, it might not be easy to exercise. You may also find it difficult to do everyday movements like getting up from a chair, getting in and out of a car, or stepping up and down from curbs. One way to work on your balance, strength, and mobility—making all of these activities easier—is to do functional exercises.

What Functional Exercise Is

Functional exercise involves doing exercises that mimic the same movements you typically do throughout the day. As an example, doing bicep curls uses the same movement and motion as picking up a bag of groceries. Therefore, doing this exercise helps improve your ability to lift your groceries.

The goal of functional exercise is to make your everyday movements easier to perform, increasing your mobility while also improving your quality of life.

Another benefit of functional exercise is that it is helpful if you have certain health conditions. If you have knee pain due to osteoarthritis, for instance, research has found that functional exercises can help reduce this pain.

3 Functional Exercises You Can Do at Home

Fortunately, you don't even have to leave your home to do functional exercises. Here are three movements you can do, starting today.

Before beginning any exercise program, it's always advised to check with your doctor, especially if you take any medications or have been diagnosed with any medical conditions. This ensures that the exercises you're doing are safe for you based on your health and fitness level.

Stepping Up and Down

Daily life often involves stepping onto curbs and walking up and down stairs. Practicing your stepping movements can make it easier to navigate these steps and stairs when you go out into the world.

How to practice: Using a step or stairway in your home, step up with the right foot and then the left, holding onto the wall or a handrail for balance. Next, step back down with the right foot followed by the left and repeat 10 times. Once you are finished, repeat the same sequence on the other side, this time leading with the left foot.

Practice this each day. As you become stronger and the movement becomes easier, add more repetitions and work to balance yourself without holding onto anything. If you use a fitness step, start with the just the top. You can add risers over time to make it higher when you're ready to do a bit more.

Make it harder: Stepping requires balance because there's a brief period when only one foot is on the floor. You can practice your balance by standing near a wall (just in case you need it) and lifting your right foot off the floor so all of your weight is on your left foot. See how long you can hold this position.

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

Standing Up and Sitting Down

Think about how many times you sit down each day on chairs, couches, and to get onto the toilet. If you have trouble with this activity, the simple act of moving from a sitting position to a standing position, and vice versa, can be frustrating.

The average toilet is about 15 inches high, while the average chair is about 16 or 17 inches off the floor. In a typical day, you'll likely need to squat down to this level at least 10 times. Squatting requires strength in the legs, abs, and back, as well as good balance and stability.

How to practice: Using a sturdy chair, or even a toilet (with the lid down), begin by sitting down and standing back up eight times. Each day, practice this transition from sitting to standing and standing to sitting, using armrests or handrails if you need. Over time, add more repetitions and try to balance without holding onto anything.

Make it harder: Once you are stronger and feel ready to do more, try squatting without sitting all the way down. By working against gravity and momentum, you'll strengthen your leg muscles and core, and improve your balance.

To do 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, but stop a few inches above the chair and hold there for a second. Stand up and repeat.

Getting In and Out of a Car

This can be tough for everyone, not just those with overweight or obesity. Yet, for some, the difficulty in maneuvering your body into and out of a small car is just one more reason you might be tempted to stay home. This functional exercise can make the process easier by improving your strength and agility.

How to practice: Sit in your car and practice getting out. Step one leg out and then the other. Use your hands to help push you up and out of the car. Try not to twist when you get out, as this can cause back injuries.

Once you are out, sit back into the car seat 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 your arms to pull on the car door.

Focused Strength Training

In addition to functional exercise, it's helpful to do some more traditional strength-building moves. If you're a beginner and new to exercise, seated strength training is a good option.

There are many upper body and lower body exercises you can do in a chair. Once you master these, you can move on to standing exercises to get better balance, stability, strength, and functionality. Some moves you can do right now include:

  • Seated slides: Sit in a chair with your feet on paper plates and slide them back and forth, pushing into the plates and activating the hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your upper leg).
  • Leg extensions: Sit tall in a chair and lift your right leg, extending the foot straight up and squeezing the front of your legs. Repeat 10 or more times on each side. This helps strengthen your quads (the muscles on the front of your upper leg).
  • Band lat pull: Sitting in a chair, hold your hands in the air, grasping the ends of a resistance band in each hand. Pull your right arm down, bringing your elbow towards your torso to squeeze your back. Repeat 10 or more times on each side.

Ready for more? Try a seated full body workout you can try at home.

A Word From Verywell

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

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Forhan M, Gill S. Obesity, functional mobility and quality of life. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013;27(2):129-37. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2013.01.003

  2. Bennell K, Nelligan R, Kimp A, et al. What type of exercise is most effective with knee osteoarthritis and co-morbid obesity?: The TARGET randomized controlled trial. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2020;28(6):755-765. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2020.02.838

  3. Shan X, Ning X, Chen Z, Ding M, Shi W, Yang S. Low back pain development response to sustained trunk axial twisting. Eur Spine J. 2013;22. doi:10.1007/s00586-013-2784-7

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."