Obese Women Face Unique Barriers To Exercise

photo credit – http://fatwonderwoman.blogspot.com/

Researchers from the Center for Obesity Research and Education and the department of kinesiology at Temple University found that obese women face a significant number of barriers when it comes to exercise, more so than their normal weight counterparts.

The Study

278 women, both normal weight and obese, were enrolled in a 12 month physical activity encouragement study.

Throughout the study, the women were questioned to determine what factors might be keeping them from exercising.

Some of those factors were:

  • Feeling self-conscious;
  • Not wanting to fail;
  • Fearing injury;
  • Perceived poor health
  • Having minor aches or pains
  • Feeling too overweight to exercise


Throughout the study, the obese women reported more barriers to exercise than the “normal” weight women.

Additionally, the obese women with the most barriers to exercise were the least likely to be exercising at the conclusion of the study.


Whether or not those barriers to exercise were real or imagined, they present a real problem.

Exercise may or may not be an effective treatment for obesity. But there is little doubt that exercise provides numerous health benefits to those willing and able to put in the effort.

If obese women (or other groups – disabled, seniors) are less likely to exercise due to perceived barriers, they are more likely to suffer from various chronic conditions above and beyond obesity.

Finding a way to minimize these barriers to exercise is vital if we are going to continue to market exercise as a method of health promotion / disease prevention.

Reducing these barriers to exercise may explain why the Curves chain of fitness centers has been such a huge success. While Curves may not be the most sophisticated health club chain, they do present an atmosphere that is “female-friendly”.

In a similar vein, “senior-friendly” health clubs are beginning to pop up around the country.

Who knows, in a few years, niche fitness clubs may be as popular as fast food restaurants.

But then again, maybe if we had fewer fast food restaurants, we wouldn’t need the niche fitness clubs.

Oh well…


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  1. Or give everyone blinders at the gym, so they can’t give dirty looks to the chunky woman with a beet-red face sweating profusely next to them.

  2. I used to workout at an all women gym. Loved it. After a year of going to that gym, I started exercising on my own regularly even after I moved away from the women’s gym. There is just something in the environment that is less intimidating for a beginner.

  3. I’ve always liked the raggae song, “Many Rivers to Cross!” The original was a lament. Then I heard another version that was Oh Yeah!! Another River to Cross! I’m crossing it! It’s all about perspective.

    DR, I really like your site, but it’s such a massive computer load that even with very good high speed, it is trouble on the system 😦

  4. Where do you get those pictures.
    Anyway I think that is a problem. You go to the gym to get in shape, but think you are expected to be in shape before you go.

    In my stereotypical world, many women seem to want to socialize. I assume some might like to work with like-minded people, similarly shaped people. I guess that goes for either sex, but jocks rule at most gyms. What about group sessions such as pilates, stationary bike groups etc?

  5. I agree that there must be a way to minimize or reduce those barriers. In the end, the gym is not for everyone – some are happier getting their exercise in the fresh air outdoors. Just walking for 15 – 20 minutes each day can do a lot to help with weight loss. Once the weight starts to drop, a person may be more encouraged to participate in more physical activities.

  6. I think this is true, but also pretty obvious. My wife gained weight very quickly after we were married. At first she tried to control it, but she would end up gaining back more weight than she lost. As she got fatter and heavier, she also became less active, which just adds to the weight problem. She must now weight about 300 pounds and has difficulty getting around so exercise would be difficult and embarassing in a group setting.

  7. It’s a real problem. My wife stayed slender till about age 35, but only through constant fasting. Then, about twenty years ago, she stopped fasting and gradually tripled her weight. The extreme gain destroyed the cartilage in her joints, and now she is simply unable to exercise at all. She has managed, through a strict low carbohydrate regimen, to reduce her BMI from almost 60 to 45, but meaningful exercise is still not possible.

  8. During my own ups and downs of getting back to fitness, I found that the gyms with the guys who were serious about lifting were the friendliest – or even if they weren’t exactly chummy, they were pleasant and there was no air of judgment. They get why people are at the gym. The fancier the gym and the more attention paid to clothing (by women), the less hospitable. But my regular place, a community-type place – you see every type of people- rather than a swanky gym, was super friendly and very, very supportive of larger people. Mostly, I think people really don’t care what you’re wearing or how big you are – and if they do, what could their opinion possibly matter to any decent person?

  9. Um… true. While I appreciate that someone is talking about the issue, an article like this doesn’t really help. It is much harder to exercise when you are carrying extra weight and it would be amazing to see someone specializing in exercise for the obese. We have unique challenges that have to be addressed to create a healthy lifestyle.

    It doesn’t bother me one bit if people are looking at me while I’m working out because I realize that I am probably stronger than them. I’m also pushing myself hard enough that I have to focus hard on exactly what is going on with my body.

  10. One of the absolute best trainers that I ever worked with was a woman who had been morbidly obese and managed to lose over 200 lbs on her own.

    Sadly, gym clients consistently avoided training with her due to the fact that she still weighed around 200 lbs (at 5’10”) They preferred the naturally thin & young trainers who ate pizza and protein shakes and still had a 6-pack.

    Personally, I have had to walk in similar shoes (299 lbs was my heaviest) and the lessons I learned were invaluable

  11. As always, I read this as proof that mental health counseling of some type is absolutely necessary for weight loss. At my heaviest, I remember feeling horrified at the gym while in leggings and tank tops. My therapist taught me to go anyway, despite the fear. Today, I’m a pretty slender girl, but I didn’t have time to wax my eyebrows- it was all I thought about, and I could have sworn everyone was looking at my bushman forehead. Then I remembered that it’s just not so. And even if it is, my life is better off if I act otherwise. I think anxiety is a symptom of years of bad nutrition, bad hormonal balance, and poor self-confidence & self-talk. If an anxious person isn’t down on themselves about weight, it’s bound to be something else. In my case, it’s part of the reason for how I became so overweight to begin with.

  12. People who are in the business of exercise counselling and encouragement — PTs, gym instructors, PE teachers — really need a knowledge and sensitivity on the fact that folks that either ARE obese or have a history of obesity are often experiencing different responses to exercise and training than folks who just need to lose a few pounds and get more toned and fit. I have found obese people to often work very hard for weeks, perhaps months and then one bout of relapse or recidivism can almost seem to undue all those months of very diligent, conscientious, almost Trojan-like self-discipline and drive. It’s not just psychological, but physiological — or should I say patho-physiological. Sad to say, the predisposition (genetic) to obesity just makes the relapse for an obese person that much more lethal than those people who have not really had the lifelong phenotype.
    So, practically speaking, when a PT works with people, he/she likes to see the results of all their advice and hard work with a person. It’s almost subconscious to show ‘favor’ toward the people that seem to be getting fitter from the advice. THAT, in itself, is positive reinforcement and spurs on continued success. In the ‘relapse’ scenario, a certain ‘awkwardness’ can unconsciously creep into the whole dynamic, which then causes the very people who need understanding and that sensitive knowledge the most, to feel defeated and discouraged and to drop out, stop going, feel ashamed, etc. And often, the relapse, if far less than some of the ‘binges’ that naturally slim people imbibe in. I am not excusing obese people nor am I blaming PTs, gym instructors, PE teachers, etc. I am only pointing out that if you are going to work with obese people, you really have to know about the multidisciplinary nature of the disorder. Someone tweeted recently about fat women spending their $ for gym memberships, etc, and getting off their ‘lazy asses’ to get fit — I was appalled and sad that someone would tweet this.

  13. @MJ

    We all have egos…and I have worked with a lot of trainers who take it personally when their clients don’t get the expected results. Often the trainer feels that the client is lying to them about their activities outside of the gym.

    When my opinion was asked, I would tell them that their job was to get the client fit, healthy, lean, etc. And quite often that goal is going to require a lot more than just 2-3 training sessions per week. Some clients are going to be easy and others…not so easy.

    And the “not so easy” clients are going to make you a much better trainer. They should be grateful for these clients

  14. As an over 50 and obese woman myself I can say that MY biggest obstacle is really believing that weight loss and fitness can actually be accomplished! I’m 54 and have 100 lbs. to lose. Not only do you have to commit to the idea that it’s not going to come off in a week, month, several months, over a year but also the fact that, when you’re my size, you don’t really even notice a difference in your body after losing, say 25 lbs! (A significant and noticeable amount of weightloss for a more normal sized individual.) It’s discouraging as hell! This time I have hired a PT for the long haul. He’s a young dude, but he helps me believe that I can do it! He’s willing to share HIS physical challenges like having to learn to walk all over again after a back surgery (he was born with Spina Bifida and has had 7 back surgeries). On top of all of that, let’s face it… most of us got to the point of obesity by stuffing down a LOT more than food! Obese individuals have an even BIGGER need for someone to help them exorcise their demons while they exercise their bodies.

  15. “MY biggest obstacle is really believing that weight loss and fitness can actually be accomplished! ”

    I agree 100%

    Designing an effective nutrition, exercise, supplement program is easy.
    Getting your mind & emotions on board with the weight-loss program is HARD

    Too bad the weight loss industry focuses almost exclusively on designing diets and recycling bodybuilding workouts from 1976

  16. I wish that fast food restaurants were the reason for my weight gain, but alas, not that easy! I hate fast food. The problem with me is portion control and a sedentary lifestyle! I make delicious food and then I just want to keep eating it!! And I’m writing a dissertation so all day at the computer. Bleh. But hopefully taking time out of my writing to do more exercising in the New Year!

  17. I would totally pick a person that had been where I was at one time and was still slightly overweight and knew what worked over a skinny little girl who’d never been fat in her life!!!

  18. I don’t know that there is a direct correlation between fast food restaurants and the need for female-friendly health clubs. You had me until that comment. More to blame, in that case, is society as a whole who show us fitness models in tiny clothes looking fit and fabulous and not breaking a sweat. I know a women who is so paranoid about men looking at her and judging her because she’s “dressed down” for the gym. People also need to realize that weight and health are not necessarily linked and fast food is not the only thing to blame for these women being bigger – genetics plays a role. As a woman who weight trains 6 times a week, does cardio 3-4 times a week, and eats a totally clean diet (read: no fast food) I have always been medically considered “overweight” at 185lbs with a BMI of 27.7. I don’t care about working out next to men, I lift more than most of them, but people may look at me and assume I’m some gym newbie because I’m not thin. It’s just not my body type. I’m very healthy and I won’t starve myself to achieve an “ideal”. In order to do away with niche gyms we need to change the thinking that thin = fit.

  19. I know several overweight women who have a barrier that seldom gets discussed. Its’ called PTSD. I’m one of them. It is a very traumatic experience to exercise and have people stand behind you and call you an oinker and laugh at the size of your buttocks or to make fake slapping sounds. it is traumatic to go to a gym and be treated as if one is a second class citizen or a lower life form. You get pushed out of the way for the muscleheads and for the bikini babes. Personal trainers treat you like garbage and the people at the desk, who are so ready to take your money, won’t even give you the time of day if you want to sign up for a class. They ask you not to stand near windows  because it discourages other people from joining the gym!  Everywhere you go, you get picked on and laughed at and treated like dirt and told not to move, because you shouldn’t draw attention to your ugly exterior. Then, people bitch because you won’t exercise and are still fat!  Maybe if people ENCOURAGED overweight women to exercise for their own health and treated them like human beings with feelings they would exercise.  I do exercise, as I can, at home, without equipment. I wouldn’t join a gym for anything! Which is okay, because last time LA Fitness had a special – the gym I could most easily get to – the people passing out coupons and information wouldn’t even talk to the overweight women that were walking by. The overweight men, yes, but, not the women – not even when we stood there and said “Excuse  me!” and they saw us. They turned their heads and headed towards women that looked like models.

  20. Also, quite frankly, I think the world needs to reorder its thinking as to what is and is not an overweight woman. Because, it appears to be anything that is bigger than a victim of Auschwitz was. My daughter is a size 4 and is told she is a porker for not being a size 2 like her sister. I was 4 years old when the insults started and I was a size 5/7 in high school but ostracized for being severely obese. A size 14 used to be normal, not obese, now a size 8 is considered grossly overweight! Unless it’s on a woman who is approximately 6 foot tall, that is. It’s crazy! Marilyn Monroe may have died fairly young, but, it was not from a heart attack due to having curves and looking like a real woman. Either was that the problem when Jane Mansfield died! And, guess what? Somehow Sophia Loren managed to keep her curves and live to a ripe old age. When society gets its head out of its butt and starts enjoying women who look like women, not starved stick figures, then women will feel confident about exercising. Except for the being leered at, but, that’s a different problem!

  21. Agreed – we need to change the thinking that thin = fit.

    Re genetics, my position is that since we can’t do a damn thing about the genes we were given, they are IRRELEVANT. Focus on the epigenetic impact of our lifestyles & environment and do the best with what we were given

  22. There are a LOT of a-holes in the fitness business.

    Sadly, the industry is mostly focused on appearance instead of health. But not totally. There are some of us out there who care about the health of our clients and not just the health of our bank accounts

  23. Body weight, BMI, waist size are commonly used by doctors and society at large to judge the attractiveness & health of both men & women (but mostly women)… However, social customs on attractiveness are not universal…some men actually do prefer women with some meat on them. It’s primarily the constant media focus on thinness that is driving society’s obsession with thin = beautiful.

    When it comes to health, the bathroom scale or a bMI is a poor measurement…BP, C-Reactive protein, etc are better measurements of our health

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