Exercise for people with obesity can look different depending on many factors. A person’s goals, fitness level, medical needs, and preferences can all help determine the best approach.

People may assume that the main goal of exercise for obesity is always weight loss. However, this is not necessarily the case. Exercise offers significant physical and mental health benefits to everyone, regardless of size or whether it causes weight loss.

Bodyweight is also not a reliable marker of physical fitness. People with a similar body mass index (BMI) can have very different abilities. Those who are just beginning a fitness routine may need to start slowly or adapt movements to their bodies, but others may not.

Read on to learn more about exercise for people with obesity.

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The best type of exercise for obesity will depend on a person’s goals, preferences, and needs.

General fitness

If the goal is overall fitness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states the following recommendations as a minimum for most adults:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking briskly
  • alternatively, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running or jogging
  • plus at least 2 days per week of strength training, such as lifting weights

Weight loss

If a person’s goal is reducing their weight, they may need to combine exercise with dietary changes. This should also include a combination of aerobic and strength training.

While aerobic exercise has a reputation for burning calories, strength training helps maintain or build muscle as a person loses weight elsewhere.

Mental health

Any type of exercise that is enjoyable or stress-relieving can potentially boost well-being. It may even provide some protection against the effects of weight stigma.

Weight stigma is prejudice against people with larger bodies. It has a significant effect on mental health and can make it more difficult to exercise.

However, some evidence suggests that separating exercise from weight loss and focusing on movement as a form of empowerment can help reduce the fear of exercise.

Learn more about internalized weight stigma.

Exercise can steadily improve many aspects of health. However, everybody’s needs are different when it comes to exercise.

People new to fitness should consult a doctor beforehand to check their routine is safe for them. In general, it is advisable to:

  • Start slowly: A 2017 study found that any exercise at all can significantly lower cardiovascular disease risk. Therefore, even if a person is not yet able to exercise for long periods, even 5–10 minutes can help.
  • Adapt movements: A person should not try exercises that feel too intense. Instead, they can adapt movements to their fitness level. For example, walking more slowly or on a flat surface may be easier than jogging or walking uphill. These adaptations allow a person to challenge themselves more as they build fitness.
  • Consider lower-impact exercise: People with joint pain or similar conditions may find that it helps to try exercises that put less strain on the body, such as water aerobics, walking on soft surfaces, or yoga.
  • Incorporate movements into daily life: Doing housework, gardening, playing with pets or children, and walking up and down stairs can all be forms of exercise.
  • Consider taking a class: Exercising with a group can help with motivation, teach a person how to do certain movements safely, and give a person access to the expertise of a fitness instructor.
  • Consider physical therapy: If someone has chronic pain or has not exercised in a long time, they may benefit from one-to-one attention from a physical therapist.

For people who are new to fitness, it can help to try forms of exercise that are relatively simple, such as:

  • Trunk rotations: Sit or stand with the arms out to the sides. Moving only the upper body, rotate the trunk and arms from side to side.
  • Sit-to-stand: Sit toward the edge of a firm chair with no armrests. Breathe in while standing up, then stand for another breath. On the next exhale, sit slowly back down.
  • Arm circles: Sitting or standing, hold the arms out to the sides. Keeping the arms straight, move the hands in circles, which can range from big to small.
  • Arm raises: While sitting or standing, slowly raise the arms straight in front of the body, then down. People can also lift them out to the sides or over the head.
  • Marching or stepping: March in place, try a brisk walk outside, or step up and down on a low stool.

A person can adjust the speed, repetitions, or intensity of these exercises to suit them.

Many of the above exercises for beginners are suitable for use at home. For more intensity, people can try:

  • Stair climbing: This can be both aerobic and strengthening, particularly for the legs. People can either walk or run up and down stairs.
  • Bodyweight exercises: These are exercises that use a person’s body weight to strengthen muscles and bones rather than requiring weights. Squats, lunges, and leg raises are examples.
  • Yoga or tai chi: These forms of exercise also involve using body weight but with an additional focus on balance, flexibility, and mindfulness. People can find free videos to guide them online.
  • Dancing: Many free dance workout videos are available online in various styles and levels.

Knee and back pain can make exercising more difficult, but there are ways to reduce strain on these parts of the body.

A person with joint pain may benefit from workouts that take weight off the joints, such as:

  • water aerobics
  • elliptical training
  • gentle yoga, ideally with an instructor
  • swimming

Depending on the cause, people with back or knee pain may also need to avoid certain exercises, such as movements that twist or jar the spine.

People with any underlying conditions, chronic pain, or disabilities should speak with a doctor before starting exercise.

A person should also talk with a doctor if:

  • exercise worsens any medical symptoms
  • exercise is painful
  • they feel physically unable to exercise
  • they need help obtaining specific health or fitness goals

There is no single type of exercise for obesity that will work for everyone. A person’s fitness level, overall health, and personal preferences all play a role in creating a workout plan that meets their goals.

Exercise should be challenging but not painful or punishing. It can be fun or empowering. Over time, it can steadily improve many aspects of health.

If a person is not sure where to begin or is having difficulty exercising, they may wish to speak with a doctor or physical therapist. Alternatively, they can attend classes or use free online resources to try different types of exercise.