by Matt Fitzgerald
June 24, 2015
Running is a great way to lose weight. Countless women and men have shed excess pounds and kept them off with the aid of this simple form of exercise. Success is not guaranteed, however. A sensible diet plan is an essential complement to running for weight loss.
Understanding the most effective ways to run for weight loss before you start will help you avoid common mistakes—and get you the results you want.
There is a widely held belief that exercise—including running—is not an effective tool for weight loss. This belief comes from studies showing that overweight women and men fail to lose much weight when given a structured exercise program to follow. In a recent review, scientists involved in this line of research concluded: “Unless the overall volume of aerobic exercise training is very high, clinically significant weight loss is unlikely to occur.”
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That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for running to lose weight! However, in the real world, the vast majority of people who lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off are exercisers. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) researched a population whose members have all lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off at least one year. Ninety percent of these individuals report exercising regularly, and the average member burns more than 2,600 calories a week in workouts.
If exercise is so ineffective for weight loss, as the scientists say, then why do almost all of those who are most successful at weight loss exercise? The answer appears to be that while exercise is not as effective as dietary changes in stimulating initial weight loss, it is wonderfully effective in preventing weight regain.
As you probably know, most people who lose weight gain it all back. But studies involving NWCR members and others have demonstrated that exercisers are much less likely to yo-yo. So unless you are interested only in temporary weight loss, you should change your diet and exercise.
There’s another benefit to combining diet changes with exercise when you’re trying to lose weight. When people lose weight through calorie restriction but without exercise, they tend to lose muscle along with body fat. But when they change their diet and exercise, they preserve muscle and lose more fat.
Many kinds of exercise can be effective for weight loss, but running is among the most effective. In a 2012 study, Paul Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that runners were leaner and lighter than men and women who did equivalent amounts of any other type of exercise. The main reason seems to be that people typically burn more calories per minute when running than they do when swimming, riding a bike, or whatever else.
No matter which form of exercise you choose, it’s important to ease into your new exercise program. Increase the challenge level of your workouts gradually to lower injury risk and get the best results. This is especially true for running. As a high-impact activity, running causes more overuse injuries than other forms of cardio exercise. Ironically, the risk of injury is greatest for heavier men and women who are likely to run specifically for weight loss.
Experts recommend that overweight men and women use these three rules to start a running program on the right foot:
Walking is less stressful than running to the bones, muscles and joints of the lower extremities, yet it’s stressful enough to stimulate adaptations that make these areas stronger and more resilient. This makes walking a great tool to prepare your body for running.
Your early workouts may consist entirely of walking or a mix of walking and running, depending on how ready your body is for running. As the weeks pass, tip the balance further and further toward running until you are comfortable doing straight runs.
Bones, muscles and joints need time to recover from and adapt to the stress of running. For most beginners, one day is not enough time for these tissues to come back stronger. So limit your running to every other day for at least the first several weeks of your program. If you wish to exercise more frequently, do walks or non-impact workouts, such as cycling, between run days.
To continue getting results from your running program, you need to run more. But if you increase your running volume too quickly, you are likely to become injured or overtired. The 10 percent rule is a good guideline for sensible running increases. To practice it, simply avoid increasing your total running distance or time by more than 10 percent from one week to the next.
Here is a four-week example of a sensible way to ease into a running program:
In order to lose weight, you must maintain a daily calorie deficit. In other words, you need to burn more calories than you eat each day. There are two ways to do this: Eat less and move more. Running will help you maintain a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn. You can increase your calorie deficit and your rate of weight loss—at least in theory—by eating less also.
The problem is that running, like other forms of exercise, makes it difficult to eat less due to increasing appetite—something known as the compensation effect. This is the primary reason that exercise often fails to meet people’s expectations for weight loss.
Individual appetite responses to exercise are varied. Working out has little effect on hunger in some people and makes others ravenous. There’s not much you can do about it either way. If running does increase your appetite, you will probably eat more. What you can do to ensure that the compensation effect doesn’t stop you from reaching your goals is increase the quality of the foods you eat.
High-quality foods are less energy dense and more satiating than low-quality foods, so they fill you up with fewer calories. By increasing your overall diet quality, you can eat enough to satisfy your heightened appetite without putting the brakes on your weight loss. Here are lists of high-quality and low-quality foods, given in rough descending order of quality.
When you start your running program, make a simultaneous effort to eat fewer foods from the right-hand column and more from the left-hand column—especially from the top of this column. There is proof that it works. Earlier this year, Danish researchers reported that new runners seeking weight loss who ran more than 5 km (3.1 miles) per week for one year but did not change their diets lost an average of 8.4 pounds. Meanwhile, new runners seeking weight loss who ran more than 5 km (3.1 miles) per week for one year and did change their diets lost an average of 12.3 pounds.
Even 12.3 pounds of weight loss in one year might not seem like a lot. If your goal is bigger than that, there are two things you can do: Run more and eat less. Let me explain.
While it’s important to progress slowly, you can continue to progress with your running until you are doing as much as you can with the time, energy and motivation you have. If you are highly motivated, consider aiming for a long-term goal of building up to 60 minutes of running per day, six days per week. A 150-pound person who runs 10-minute miles will burn more than 4,000 calories per week on this schedule.
These additional increases in running will likely stimulate additional increases in appetite and eating. But chances are such compensations won’t cancel out your hard work. Research tells us that the average person eats roughly three extra calories for every 10 calories she or he burns through exercise.
As I mentioned above, increasing your diet quality will minimize the compensation effect. But if you’re already running as much as you can or wish, and you’ve already improved your diet quality and you’re still not losing weight as fast as you would like, there’s something else you can try: decrease the size of your meals by about one-fifth. Research by Brian Wansink of Cornell University has shown that people can eat about 20 percent less at meals without noticing the difference in terms of satiety. That’s because in our society we have been trained to eat beyond our natural satiety level. Just be sure to do this only after you have allowed your food intake to adjust to your increased amount of running.
The compensation effect isn’t all about increased appetite. For some people there’s also a reward effect at play. Too often, runners celebrate the completion of workouts by eating low-quality treats such as cookies and potato chips. In many cases, these treats contain more calories than were burned in the workout.
The best way to avoid this type of self-sabotage is to view your runs themselves as rewards rather than as chores to be gotten through and rewarded. A recent study by Brian Wansink found that people ate less than half as many M&M’s offered to them after a walk when they had been told before it that it was a “scenic walk,” compared to when they had been told it was an “exercise walk.”
As this study shows, the mindset that you bring to your running program is important. In fact, whatever your weight-loss goal may be, your number-one goal should be to enjoy running—or learn to enjoy it. That’s because you will only benefit from running if you keep doing it, and you will only keep doing it if you enjoy it.
For this reason, you should do whatever you need to do to enhance your enjoyment of running. Studies have shown that when people manipulate their workouts in ways that make them more fun, they are more likely to stick with their programs. If you enjoy running with music, run with music. If you prefer running with a friend or group, do that. If you like running in the park, run in the park. There’s really no wrong way to run for weight loss if you’re having fun.
MORE TO GET YOU MOVING
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About the Author
Matt Fitzgerald is a certified sports nutritionist and author of Diets Cults and 80/20 Running, among other books. He provides real-time audio coaching for runners and other athletes through pearsports.com and one-on-one nutrition coaching through racingweight.com.