How much harder is it for an overweight person to exercise?

I’m overweight and I work with people that like to climb stairs throughout the day. As someone that weighs 280 pounds, walking up 4 flights of stairs is quite a workout. The rest of the group do it 3 or 4 times.

I’m trying to determine, to the extent that it’s possible, how much harder it is for me than it is for one of my 150 pound co-workers. I don’t think that it’s as simple as putting a 130 pound backpack on them because I’m pretty sure that none of them could handle it. I also doubt that I’m that much stronger than they are.

If this were a high school physics problem, it could probably solved pretty easily with some answer in foot pounds. But when part of the extra mass is doing some of the work, I’m now sure what the answer is.

Sorry that this is rambling. The real question is in the title.

Actually, you are that much stronger than them. Your legs need to be that much stronger to move your weight around.

It’s exactly as much more work as you are carrying more weight. The fact that some of that weight is muscle will make it easier for you than if you could just hang the equivalent dead weight on them, of course. There is also the problem of cardiovascular health to consider. It might be that their cardio fitness would balance or even outweigh (sorry!) the effect of the muscle disparity.

Likewise, if they are gym goers and regular weight lifters, they may well have the musculature to handle it. There is no way to tell.

But it is definitely asking far more of you than it is of them. Don’t let them guilt you into spending your days sweaty, breathless and uncomfortable. Also remember that taking the stairs down is substantially harder on your knees and hips. Unless you are quite young, go for a walk at lunchtime instead. Or if you don’t have a family waiting for you, try a walk around the office environs in the evening instead of sitting in traffic. Getting into the commute a little later may be beneficial all around.

It isn’t rambling but it is hard to know in what manner to answer the question,

In physics work it is a simple physics problem. But that likely isn’t what you are after.

Another way of thinking about is the metabolic work you are doing. Each of you expend one metabolic equivalent (MET) at rest. One MET is defined as the energy you spend sitting at rest. Now that amount is more for you than for them. A rough rule (and very rough) is based on 1 Cal/2.2 lb/hr. Reality is based on how much of the weight is what but that gets complicated fast (but there are calculators for that). So at rest you are doing more metabolic work than they are and if each of you are doing an activity that is rated at say 6 METs (moderately brisk stair climbing) then you are also doing that amount more calories of work times six than they are. Maybe more as the same activity for someone more fit is less METs than for someone who is not.

So yes you are doing a lot more work than they are. I’d suggest you pick a level of intensity (say breathing heavy but able to complete a sentence) and a length of time, and do that intensity that long without worrying about comparing yourself to those who are doing less work per flight.

Just a little clarification so that you guys don’t get the wrong impression. The people that walk the stairs aren’t pushing me into anything. They’re all good people and give me nothing but support in whatever I do.

Not that it’s relevant to the original question but I wanted you to know.

Something else to consider: Excess weight carried in the torso/abdomen makes breathing more difficult by literally reducing the amount of room into which one’s lungs can expand. So the degree of breathlessness can actually be greater if the weight is endogenous, as opposed to (say) in a backpack.

Source: My PCP, last month. (Gotta drop another 80 lbs.)

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Unless you’re 7 feet tall, officially that’s not “overweight”: it’s obese. The distinction is important, I’ve been officially overweight since the day my hips realized I had XX chromosomes but I’ve spent about half a year on the lower range of obese and the difference was noticeable. I’ve had coworkers who were at your weight range (heights between 5’8" and 6"4’) and the shorter one didn’t so much get up from his chair as roll sideways and up out of it: he started what would eventually be an epic weight loss precisely during the time we worked together and one of the high points was being able to walk up to our office without visible effort. Things such as your build, how much of the extra weight is muscle vs fat and where is the fat located also make a big difference; the same amount of fat distributed more or less evenly between knees and elbows or piled up on the gut, distributed on a frame that’s built like an outhouse or on a beanpole, will have different consequences.

Thanks. And apologies for the assumption. I guess I was picturing my former colleagues. :rolleyes:

FWIW I assumed the pressure to keep up was self imposed.

I don’t think this would be possible to solve because you can be overweight, but also have the ability to do pretty decent cardio. Have you ever seen that documentary about the guy that can swim for days on end (he’s pretty overweight, but he can just keep stroking).

Way too many variables to consider.

I’m just barely 1 foot shy of being 7 feet tall.

Forget about weight, walking up stairs is a very intense workout because you’re going against gravity. Based upon winning times of races it’s 15-20 times harder than a comparable distance on a flat track. You won’t burn tons of overall calories because you don’t do it for too long but while you’re doing it your exertion is huge & your calorie per minute rate is off the charts.

As TruCelt stated; going down is much harder on the joints than going up. If possible, take the elevator down before climbing back up.


It’s not just the extra weight. Hence how are used to exercise you are. My wife barely weighs 105 pounds, and she would be hard pressed to walk up four flights of stairs four times.

To add to what everyone else has already said, yes it’s harder. You probably don’t need to be doing stairs anyway as it isn’t in the best range for weight loss, as far as VO2 max goes. Weight loss is a primarily low grade cardio for longer periods. So want to effectively lose weight, walk, fast, for longer than 30 minutes

One contributing factor that makes it harder is that the less you work out, the less efficient your body is at working out. Your weight is definitely a major component, but the ease of walking up the stairs would be different if you regularly worked out compared to being mostly sedentary. It’s the same at lower weights as well. A 150lb person who regularly works out will have a much easier time walking up stairs than a 150lb person who is sedentary. The person who works out will have additional metabolic efficiencies which makes effort easier compared to someone who doesn’t work out. For you, this means that the stairs would probably be easier if you walked an hour a day even if your weight was still 280.

Essentially, a sedentary person just starting to take the stairs will initially feel it is a very hard task and their heartrate will be very elevated. But after weeks or months of taking the stairs, they will find it much easier. It might never feel easy, but they won’t be breathing as hard, their heartrate won’t get as high, etc. once their body gets adapted to it.

If you magically lost 130 pounds of fat overnight, you would likely have a much easier time going upstairs with a 130lb pack than they would. Your body is already adapted to carrying 280lbs, so your cardiovascular system, joints, tendons, and muscles would be much better able to handle that load than they would.

I wonder if they strapped 130lb and walked up stairs, how would their heartrate, blood pressure, effort etc. be compared to yours? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re more efficient at carrying 280lbs up stairs than they are.

Congratulations on your effort to exercise and improve your conditioning. I’m glad to hear that you have some supporters to work out with. These individuals can make a real difference! You have a rather long road ahead of you, but you have certainly taken steps toward your goal. Keep going, don’t quit!

I know you didn’t mention weight loss, but at 280, I’m sure this is on your mind.

Exercise has very little to do with weight loss. Ingesting 500 calories is almost effortless (a 6 inch Subway sandwich, 4 strips of bacon, a plain bagel with cream cheese or many other similar food choices) , but burning 500 calories is anything but effortless. A brisk four mile walk, a hour of moderate bicycling, or a 45 minute swim all only burn about 500 calories.

Its all about eating less calorie dense foods.

I can’t give you a specific number, and in any case how much harder depends on the exercise. It is a lot harder to do many exercises if one is heavy.

One approach is to look at the people who are successful in a given sport at any level. Gymnasts, 400m runners, power lifters or basketball players all practice very different sports. But with some minor variations tend towards a similar body habitus. Being very good at one sport does not usually make you competitive at unrelated sports.

Many power lifters are large. Although almost all are obese because of the way BMI is calculated, yet most are probably carrying too much fat by other objective measures, such as height to waist ratio. Many are very strong but also struggle with walking up stairs.

I was skinny and gained a lot of weight after years of lifting weights. Exercises like chin-ups are much more difficult for heavy people. Exercises like swimming may be somewhat more difficult but the factors involved are different. Chin-ups depend on shoulder, grip and arm strength versus mass and overcoming gravity. Swimming depends on arm strength and drag, which tends to be proportional to exposed surface area and not volume, although there are other complications. And gravity is less of an issue due to the direction of movement.

I have a great book on physics in sports somewhere. If you have a more specific question I could look at it.

If you wanted a physics approach, let’s ask how much harder it is for someone with mass 2M to climb stairs compared to someone with mass M. These are approximations.

The kinetic energy relates to velocity, 0.5mv^2. If you have mass 2M and travel up and down at half the speed as M, say your speed is V and your lighter friend has a speed of 2V. Your kinetic energy is MV^2. Your lighter friend has a kinetic energy of twice this.

The potential energy relates to work against gravity, PE=mgh for height h. Going up the stairs of height h once would result in your PE of 2Mgh. Your lighter friend has a PE of Mgh, and needs to go double the distance to equal yours, as in fact happens.

Four flights of stairs at 45 degrees might be a height of 25 metres. A slow walking speed is 4 km/h. You could work out values.

So is your lighter friend using more energy, since energy is the sum of these values? And travelling twice the distance with half the weight gives the same potential energy and smaller kinetic energy?

Probably not. In mechanical systems, you also need to overcome friction, which is proportional to mass. Biological systems are much harder to measure, so physiologists use approximations like oxygen consumed. One general thing, though, is the more you do something and get more efficient at it, the LESS useful it might be for burning calories. The inefficiency is a major contributor to work done, in a manner kind of analogous to friction. Any gym has people who spend a lot of time on treadmills who have not achieved the results they hoped for. And anyone on a diet knows they can be less effective with time beyond the “ 3500 calories per pound of fat” trope.