A few years ago, Dean Whitmire, a motorcycle sales manager in Lindsey, Ohio, started jogging to lose weight and to improve his health after a scary doctor’s appointment. Over the next two and a half years, as Whitmire increased his running from two-minute spurts to full marathons, he lost 144 pounds.
Around the same time Whitmire started his weight-loss journey, Christina Haupert, a fitness blogger living in eastern Massachusetts, trained for her first marathon. Over the course of 22 weeks, she not only failed to lose weight but actually gained 10 pounds.
As these examples illustrate, running can be an effective way to lose weight, but it isn’t always. As a weight-loss method, running has pros and cons. To get the best possible results, you need to know about both so you can avoid common pitfalls and take full advantage of running’s fat-burning potential.
Also, it’s important to note that runners come in all shapes and sizes, and “healthy” is a relative term that’s not confined to a number on the scale or a specific body mass index rating.
Pro: Running burns a lot of calories
Exercise promotes weight loss primarily by burning calories, and running burns a lot of calories. The good news is that this is true whether you’re fast or slow. You will burn about 0.75 calorie per pound you weigh per mile you run regardless of your speed. So, if you weigh 150 pounds and you run 5 miles, you will burn approximately 562 calories.
Research by Paul Williams, an epidemiologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, suggests that running is more effective than other forms of exercise in promoting weight loss, and the reason may be that runners tend to measure exercise doses in distance instead of time. If you coast through a 45-minute indoor cycling class, you won’t burn nearly as many calories as you would if you pushed hard for the same duration, but again, the number of calories you burn per mile you run is unaffected by pace. Also, that 45-minute indoor cycling class is always 45 minutes—the instructor decides that—whereas if you want to burn more calories through running, all you have to do is run more. It’s up to you!
Con: Running increases appetite and reward eating
It would be nice if every calorie you burned through running contributed to weight loss, but that’s not the case. Human appetite is highly sensitive to activity levels, so the more you run, the more you’ll want to eat. For most people, the increase in appetite that comes with running does not completely negate the calories burned in workouts, so that weight loss is still possible, but for others it does.
In addition to increasing appetite, running triggers reward eating in certain individuals. As the name implies, reward eating is a habit of indulging in high-calorie food treats after completing a workout and it can counteract the calorie-burning effect of running even in the absence of increased appetite. Remember that example of a 562-calorie run I gave earlier? A single bakery cupcake eaten to celebrate that run contains the same number of calories, making it as if the run never happened.
When Christina Haupert trained for her third marathon in 2015, instead of using her running as a free pass to eat whatever she wanted, she timed her treats, indulging in things like chocolate-covered peanuts or a donut only after her longest run of each week. The result? Instead of gaining weight (as she had done when training for both her first and second marathons), she lost a few pounds.
Resisting an increase in appetite is more difficult than resisting a desire for food rewards, and in fact you shouldn’t even try. Nobody can maintain the willpower to exist in a state of constant hunger for very long. Instead of fighting that doomed battle, shift your diet toward more satiating food choices so you’re able to satisfy your appetite with fewer calories. Examples are baked and boiled potatoes, beans, eggs, oatmeal and vegetables.
Pro: Running is enjoyable
No matter how much weight you lose through running, you will need to continue running to keep the weight off. And you will only continue to run if you fall in love with it. Ask any longtime runner to identify their top reasons for running and they will rank enjoyment ahead of weight management, even if they started running for the sole purpose of losing weight.
At some point in your own running journey, you will need to fall in love with it. The best way to facilitate this process is to train for an event such as a 5K. There’s something magical about training for a race and crossing a finish line that makes new runners want to keep running, not just for the benefits but for the running itself. Try it and you’ll see!
Con: Running is a high-impact activity
Perhaps the biggest drawback of running is that, unlike other forms of cardio exercise such as swimming and cycling, it is a high-impact activity. Consequently, overuse injuries including bone strains (such as stress fractures in the shins, feet and heels) and soft-tissue injuries (such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis and IT band syndrome) are more common among runners. To make matters worse, the injury risk is greatest in larger and heavier runners.
The best way to avoid impact-related injuries is to ease into it. If you’re both new to running and overweight, start with walking. This will initiate the process of making your bones, muscles and connective tissues more durable. When you’re ready, sprinkle short bouts of running into your walks. Over a period of a few weeks, gradually lengthen these walking bouts until you are able to run from start to finish.
If you want to maximize fat-burning while also minimizing injury risk, run every other day and do a non-impact cardio workout (swimming, spinning or cycling) on alternate days. This will give your legs plenty of time to recover from the stress of your runs without requiring that you just sit around and wait. After a few more weeks on this routine, you can move to daily running if you wish.
Pro: Running makes diet changes easier
According to most obesity experts, dietary improvements are more effective than increases in activity for weight loss. Although this may be true in principle, however, it is seldom true in practice because people have trouble making diet changes stick. The great thing about running (and other forms of exercise) is that it makes improved eating habits easier to sustain.
This was shown in a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2013, which found that overweight subjects who started exercising at the same time they made diet changes did a better job of sticking to these changes and lost more weight than other subjects who changed their diet first and then started exercising. The authors of the study reasoned that the first group got better results because exercise makes people feel good about themselves in a way that makes them want to eat healthier.
So, which specific changes should you make to your diet? I recommend increasing the overall quality of your diet by eating fewer processed foods (particularly refined grains, sweets, fried foods and processed meats) and avoiding eating when you’re not hungry.
Con: Running is easy to do incorrectly
One of the attractions of running is its simplicity. This doesn’t mean everyone is born knowing how to run most effectively for weight loss, however. Left to their own devices, most people run at the same moderate intensity day after day. But research has shown that people get fitter and shed more body fat if they take a so-called polarized approach to running, doing some of their training at a comfortable effort level (70-75 percent of maximum heart rate) and the rest at a challenging high intensity (>90 percent).
A 2014 study by Austrian researchers, for example, found that runners and other endurance athletes who did about half of their training at low intensity and half at high intensity lost 3.7 percent of their initial body weight in nine weeks, while other athletes who did most of their training at moderate intensity lost no weight.
High-intensity running should be done in the form of interval workouts, where short bursts of fast running are separated by low-intensity recovery periods. In a well-executed interval session you will do all of the intervals at a consistent speed and finish the last one feeling you could have done one or at most two more at the same speed. The optimal running plan for weight loss will include a balance of high-intensity interval runs and steady, low-intensity runs, as in this example week:
10 x 30 secs fast/1:30 slow
5 min. cool-down
30 min. slow
7 x 1 min. fast/2 min slow
5 min. cool-down
30 min. slow
12 x 0:20 fast/1:40 slow
5 min. cool-down
45 min slow
You can lose weight by running. The keys to success are training correctly, improving your diet at the same time you begin running, taking steps to avoid injury, avoiding the pitfalls of overeating and reward eating, and most important, falling in love with it!