updated 11/2/2004 4:21:09 PM ET 2004-11-02T21:21:09

Tom Burns realized he was woefully out of shape after he ran a block and a half around his neighborhood and felt “every bone, muscle and joint in my body was killing me.”

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Back then, Burns was obese. At 5-foot-8, he tipped the scales at 220 pounds. The last time he got any regular exercise was in high school when he played for the hockey team. Over the years, the 38-year-old became less active and watched helplessly as his waistline kept expanding.

At least half an hour of exercise five days a week is recommended for couch potatoes. But for two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese, sudden exercise can be more than challenging — it can be dangerous.

A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight, sedentary people are more than 30 times more likely to have a heart attack during vigorous exertion than at any other time.

And there are other obesity-related health risks that must be taken considered before starting a routine since heavy people suffer from a higher risk of diabetes, asthma, arthritis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Proceed with caution
But fitness experts say the key is not to overdo it and proceed with caution.

Even a simple task like walking may feel like a chore. Carrying extra weight around their middle or thighs may also increase the risk of sports injuries because of stress on the joints.

Some can’t get a full workout because certain gym equipment like weight benches and rowing machines are too narrow, leading to knee or back problems. And there’s the image factor. Many people feel self-conscious walking into a gym full of sculpted bodies.

Still, fitness experts say the biggest challenge is motivating an obese person to get moving. One solution is to make exercise a part of daily life. Everyday tasks like running errands and climbing stairs instead of taking the elevator will make exercise feel seamless.

“Overcoming inertia is a huge challenge,” said Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise. “It’s very, very important to get into it gradually, but consistently.”

Try walking first
Clay Anderson, a fitness professor at Utah Valley State College who coaches obese and morbidly obese people, tells his clients to just walk until they can do it for an hour nonstop.

After several months of just walking, he introduces other exercises into the mix like elliptical trainers, yoga classes and weight training. The goal is to lose two to three pounds a week, but Anderson admits some people expect miracle weight loss through exercise.

“They all want to lose too much too fast,” Anderson said. “You kind of have to rein them back in.”

Burns took up exercise to make a lifestyle change after thinking about his own mortality. Both his father and grandfather died young from heart disease at ages 55 and 48.

What began as a jog around his Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood one cold December morning in 2000 turned into a lifelong passion. At first, he could barely trot two blocks. But after buying a book for novice runners, he upped his pace so that now he competes in marathons. He even started a nonprofit foundation that promotes health and wellness through exercise.

And he’s lost 40 pounds.

But it has not all been carefree.

“The one mental block that I face and still face to this day,” he said, “is getting off the couch and going to run.”

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