If you’re trying to lose weight, hopefully you’re reevaluating your activity level to get more exercise. Weight loss occurs when you burn more calories than you consume. There are two ways to do that: burn more calories with more physical activity and/or consume fewer calories.
Ideally, you use a combination of both. Reducing your calorie intake is the most effective way to lose weight, but exercise is still important. Not only does it burn more calories, it strengthens your heart, boosts your energy, relieves stress, reduces your risk of many diseases, promotes better sleep, and otherwise contributes to better health.
People often turn to running when starting an exercise regimen for weight loss. It’s appealing for lots of reasons. For example, it’s easy and free, it gets you out of the house, and you can vary your route to help prevent boredom with the routine.
While running provides a highly beneficial cardio workout, it’s a slow process for weight loss. Don’t expect pounds to just start falling off immediately. And understand that as your body becomes more accustomed to the activity, it burns increasingly fewer calories while doing it.
Before You Start Running for Weight Loss
Consult your doctor before you start running for weight loss or take up any new exercise regimen, especially if you’ve been inactive for a while. There are risks for injury with a high-impact activity like running and potentially dangerous overexertion. A professional with knowledge of your general health and medical conditions should advise you.
Start out at an appropriate pace and duration and gradually build up to more intense workouts. Your body has to get used to being more active, and you need to find that sweet spot where you’re pushing yourself but not unsafely straining your heart or other parts.
Ask about how frequently you should run, how fast and how far you should go, how to know when to stop, and how to build up safely. Don’t start out running on consecutive days; your muscles, bones, and joints take a beating when you run and require time to recuperate and become more resilient.
Learn to stretch properly to minimize the risk of injury and to get the most benefit from workouts. Your doctor, a fitness trainer, a friend or family member who’s a practiced runner, or reputable fitness websites are good sources of information. Stretch before and after running.
The Basics of Running for Weight Loss
Generally speaking, the longer and faster you run, the more calories you burn. But again, you have to build up slowly. As a rule of thumb—but not a substitute for your doctor’s personalized advice—don’t increase the time or distance you run by more than 10 percent every week or two. Also, running uphill burns more calories than running on flat terrain.
Warm up at the beginning of each run by walking, progressively increasing your pace; finish each run with a cool-down period by gradually dropping your speed to end with a slow walk.
Stay hydrated. Dehydration saps your energy, can cause muscle cramps and other discomfort, and can be dangerous. Skip sugary sports and energy drinks and just have water. They’re not good for you, plus your body will burn those readily available carbs for energy during your run instead of fat.
Some research suggests your body burns fat most efficiently while running if you get up to about 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. Again, though, you have to build up to doing that safely. For a generally healthy adult, the max heart rate is found by subtracting your age in years from 220. So, if you’re 40, your max heart rate is 180 beats per minute; 65 percent of that is 117 beats per minute.
However, there’s even more compelling research that shows that sprint intervals are the best way to lose weight with running. That means going along at a base pace but interspersing hard sprints lasting 20 to 30 seconds every few minutes or so. This sort of jolts your body out of adapting to the activity to do it in a more energy-efficient way, something it naturally wants to do.
A Few Reasons You Might Not Lose Weight with Running
Patients tell me all the time that they’ve started exercising but aren’t losing weight. They’re baffled and disappointed—understandably so. They’ve made a positive decision and acted on it, but aren’t getting the reward they want. There are a few simple reasons people often don’t see the expected weight loss when they take up running.
Many offset the increased calorie burn by eating more. Exercise uses fuel and makes you hungrier. If you eat another snack, bulk up your meal, or eat more beforehand for extra energy, you easily undo what you accomplished with the exercise. Also, a lot of people decide they’ve earned a treat because they worked out, which just cancels out the good you did.
Often, people’s expectations aren’t met because they’re too high. To lose 1 pound, you must create a deficit of 3,500 calories; burn 3,500 more than you consume, and you lose 1 pound. To lose 1 pound in a week, you have to average a daily 500-calorie deficit. Running doesn’t burn as many calories as people assume. While there are variables, a typical 150-pound adult only burns a little less than 500 calories by running for 45 minutes at a pace of 10 miles per hour.
Remember, your body adapts to your workouts. When they stay the same, they become increasingly less work for your body, which means you burn increasingly fewer calories doing the same thing consistently. Building up to a faster pace and a longer run is essential. Varying your route to experience different terrain helps, as does the interval sprinting mentioned above.
Don’t depend on running alone. Incorporate different types of exercise into your routines to keep your body burning at peak efficiency. Strength training to build muscle is great for burning fat. And you can’t necessarily gauge how well you’re doing by the number on the scale; many exercises replace fat with muscle, which is denser and heavier. So you can lose little weight—or even gain some—while becoming more fit.