Many of my readers have found my site because they have quite a lot of weight to lose and have been sedentary for the last couple of years. If you are in a similar situation you probably already know that most of the usually recommended exercise programs will not be the most realistic option for you. Trying to take on too much at once can have an extremely negative effect on your motivation and possibly even your health. Even if you don't have all that much weight to lose and/or are physically capable of more intense forms of exercise, you can still learn from the concepts described in this article.
Before I begin, I need to say one more thing. If I was extremely overweight sedentary person, I would consult my physician about my planned form of exercise (especially if I had some other health issues). Now let's get right down to what I would do if I were extremely overweight and completely out of shape.
The recommended daily amount of exercise
The official exercise guidelines for adults state that we should do at least 2 hours and 30 minutes weekly (a bit over 20 minutes daily) of moderate-intensity or 1 hour and 15 minutes weekly (a bit over 10 minutes daily) of high-intensity aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise includes walking, running, swimming, cycling, etc. While most of my readers are perfectly capable of doing at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day, let's suppose that I was so out of shape that I couldn't even walk for 20 minutes per day at my optimal level of exercise intensity. You would be surprised just how many people are actually in such a situation right now.
Regardless of my physical state, the first thing I would do is determine something what I call maximum tolerable daily amount of exercise (I'll explain how to do that later on). If 20 minutes would be too much for me, I would try walking for 10 minutes every day. It really wouldn't matter if I could only walk for 3 minutes, I would try to stick to that in the beginning. And it wouldn't matter if such short exercise sessions would not contribute much to the calories burned. The only thing that would matter is that I would be able to do this initial amount of exercise day in and day out. This way I would be slowly preparing my body for longer workout sessions later on, even though they seemed to have no immediate effect on weight loss.
Do I have to exercise every day?
The official exercise guidelines talk only about the weekly recommended amounts (I have recalculated the daily values) and there are various ways of achieving this. You could distribute the prescribed weekly amount among between three or five sessions a week, or at least in theory, you could just get it over with in a single day. But my recommendation would be to try to develop a habit of exercising every single day. Humans are creatures of habits. If you manage to stick to your daily exercise regime for only a few weeks, you have a great chance of being able to stick to your new habit (ideally, for life). Psychology experts are quick to explain that it takes about 21 days for anyone to develop a (hopefully beneficial) new habit.
But I will go even further with my recommendation. I would also try to set a specific time of the day for my exercise sessions (like in the morning or immediately after work). If you develop a habit of putting on your running shoes as soon as you jump out of bed every single day, this behavior will become so imprinted in your mind that you will soon start doing it almost automatically. I need to reiterate just how much easier this habitual behavior is achieved if your new habit is practiced every single day. If you alternate between jogging and sitting in front of the TV every other day, I can guarantee you will soon begin to gravitate towards sitting in front of the TV instead of running (as soon as your mind has a choice, it will try to take the easier road). The decision is yours, but your best chance of success comes with daily exercise at roughly the same time of the day.
How to begin and how to progress
So how do you determine your maximum tolerable daily amount of exercise? There is no clear-cut formula or specific way of measuring this except going out and learning by trial and error. If I was extremely overweight I would just try walking for as long as it felt comfortable on my first day. If the next day I was unable to repeat my performance I would stop immediately upon reaching the point where I could no longer comfortably continue. My maximum tolerable daily amount of exercise would become obvious to me at about the third consecutive day of exercising. After that point I would just continue walking at the same pace and duration until at the end of my walks I felt confident I have some energy leftovers. As soon as it felt right, I would increase the duration, but only by a small amount, like a minute or so.
While my starting exercise sessions would be too short to make a meaningful contribution towards weight loss, I would know that I am getting better and better at the pace that does not endanger my health or my motivation to repeat the walk the next day. My progress might seem slow, but if I was only able to extend my walks by 30 seconds per day (on average), I would be able to walk continuously for an entire hour in less than four months. That means up to three hours in about a year's time. That much exercise would really start putting a dent into my body fat reserves! If I learned how to handle the psychological aspect of my overeating, I would also be able to help bring my weight down with my diet. Who knows, in a year's time, maybe my body would even be able to handle some running. If I managed to apply the same rate of progress to my running sessions, two years from now I could be running my first marathon.
It does not matter how much exercise you are capable of. What matters is that you start developing a habit (or a lifestyle) of exercising. A few years ago I was obese and I couldn't even do 20 minutes of light intensity exercise on elliptical trainer before starting to feel dizzy and having to end my session. A few months ago I ran my first half marathon (13 miles or 21 kilometers). Slow and steady wins the race regardless of how far away your ultimate goal might seem right now.