It’s tempting to think running is a magical form of exercise that will melt away any weight you’re trying to lose. The idea that running leads to weight loss has been alive and kicking for years, fueled by before-and-after stories, run-to-lose training programs, and articles touting the weight-loss effects of this popular sport you can do anywhere.
If you like running, then that’s great and there’s definitely a way to make running a part of your weight-loss plan (if that’s your goal). But if weight loss is your primary goal, focusing your fitness routine on mostly steady-state running—running at a low to moderate intensity at a relatively stable pace—isn’t the best way to get results.
“Relying on running alone isn’t the best way to lose weight because it burns relatively few calories for the time invested,” exercise physiology and nutrition expert Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College and former research fellow at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. While running does have its benefits, there are better things to focus on if your ultimate goal is to lose weight—though that doesn’t mean you need to ditch your running shoes entirely.
First, let’s be clear: Running can be really beneficial in ways that have nothing to do with weight loss.
Weight loss certainly isn’t a goal for everyone, nor should it be. Even if weight loss is a goal for you, running can be worthwhile for other reasons. Running offers a slew of health benefits, from boosting mood and sleep quality to improving heart health. A long-term study on 55,137 people published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology even found that runners had a 30 percent lower risk of death from any cause, and a 45 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease than their non-running peers during the 15-year study period. Researchers also observed that runners had 3 years’ higher life expectancy compared with non-runners, although the debate still rages about whether “too much” running (that is, lifelong, marathoner-level running) is good or bad for your heart.
“Just because you haven’t lost five pounds in a month doesn’t mean you’re not reaping the benefits of exercise in some way,” says exercise physiologist Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D.N., adjunct professor of nutrition and health at the University of Bridgeport, and senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health. “There’s no downside to getting out the door and exercising on a regular basis,” she tells SELF.
Health benefits aside, running can be just plain fun. After all, any runner can attest to the feelings of freedom and excitement you experience when you really hit your stride. So if you love running, definitely continue to run. It just shouldn’t be the only thing you do if your ultimate goal is to lose weight.
One of the reasons running seems great for weight loss is that at first, it is. But the results taper off as your body adapts.
It’s true that for many people during the first few weeks—or even months—of running, the weight may seem to fall off. When you’re new to exercise, your body responds to a lower level of stress, and you may not have to run very far or very long to see results. But after a while, it takes more and more stress to get your body to respond. As a result, the scale stops budging.
“Your body is a machine, and it just wants to do things as efficiently as possible,” Pojednic says. As your body learns to adapt to your new running regimen, you start burning fewer calories jogging your go-to neighbourhood loop than you did before. Also, when you start to lose weight, your body won’t need as much energy to function as it did when you were heavier—so your basal metabolic rate (the energy your body burns at rest) will actually start to decrease. This is partly because your overall mass is decreasing, but also because when you’re running but not strength training, research shows that you’ll most likely lose both fat and muscle mass—the latter of which requires more energy for your body to maintain. A decrease in muscle mass can reduce how many calories your body burns at rest.
Like any other workout, you have to progress your running routine to continue to see results. That means running faster or longer—covering the same 4-mile loop you could run in your sleep isn’t going to do much when it comes to continuing to lose weight (you’ll still reap the health benefits, though). That’s because your body won’t be forced to adapt further, and your fitness and weight will plateau.
Running also tends to give people a false sense of how many calories they burned.
When you expend energy exercising, your body will usually crave more calories to replace the ones it’s burned. This varies a lot from person to person—it’s impossible to know how many calories you’ve burned simply based on how hungry you are (there are so many biochemical factors that impact your appetite after a workout).
Because of this, many people who run or exercise for weight loss tend to overestimate the number of calories they’re burning and underestimate the number they’re consuming, Pojednic says. The research backs her up. For example, in one small study of 16 adults in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, men and women who completed an aerobic workout session were asked to estimate the number of calories they burned, and then eat that caloric equivalent at a buffet-style meal. The result? Subjects overestimated calories burned three- to four-fold, and ate two to three times the number of calories they actually burned.
When it comes to exercise that may help with weight loss, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is your best bet.
HIIT is a type of workout where you alternate between really intense cardio intervals and rest. During the intense intervals, you should be working as hard as you possibly can—pushing your body to its max and using up all your energy. The point is that resting in between allows you to give it your all when it’s time for each short burst of work. Intervals are typically 20 to 90 seconds long, and full workouts are usually no longer than 20 minutes (often they’re less than 10).
There are many different ways to do HIIT—whether you’re strength training, cycling, or doing another cardio workout that’s organized into high- and low-intensity intervals, including running. You’ve probably seen it associated with fitness classes, but running is actually a really simple way to do a HIIT workout—the difference between this type of running and steady-state running is that you alternate between periods of intense running and slower jogs or walking rather than keeping the same pace for a set amount of time. For example, Pojednic suggests the next time you’re running, try sprinting all-out when you reach every third telephone pole. Then, recover for the length of two telephone poles before dashing off again. That’s just one example of how to incorporate intervals into your run to make it a HIIT workout.
HIIT remains a wildly popular workout option for a good reason: it’s worth the weight-loss hype.
A recent meta-analysis of 39 studies on HIIT published in the journal Sports Medicine concluded that the workout protocol is a time-efficient way to decrease body fat in normal weight and overweight adults. The authors note that more studies need to be done to show what specific HIIT workouts are most effective—though some studies indicate that HIIT running may be more effective than cycling, they add.
Other studies that have compared HIIT cardio workouts to steady-state cardio specifically have shown that the former is more effective for fat loss. For example, a small study of 45 women published in the International Journal of Obesity had one group of women alternate 8-second sprints with 12 seconds of recovery for 20 minutes, while another group performed 40 minutes of steady-state exercise. By the end of 15 weeks, women in the HIIT group lost as much as 7.3 pounds, while those in the steady-state group actually gained as much as 2.7 pounds (the authors note, however, that since the subjects self-reported their diets, the difference in weight changes could be due to other factors, like unreported changes in eating habits).
There are a few possible reasons for HIIT’s weight-loss efficiency. The number of calories you burn per minute depends on the intensity of your exercise. When you exercise at an intense level, your body expends more energy (read: calories) in a short amount of time to fuel your body, Pojednic says. Then, once your workout is over, your body will continue burning calories as it works to recover. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the afterburn effect, although the actual calories burned in this state is a small percentage of the calories you burned during your workout and therefore probably negligible. Still, research shows that high-intensity training produces a bigger afterburn effect than steady-state training does.
To avoid injury and burnout, experts suggest limiting high-intensity workouts to two or three times per week. Plan easier workouts (think: an effort of five or six on a scale of one to 10) for non-HIIT days—you’ll give your body time to recover while still moving, improving your health, and burning more calories than you would if you were just sitting around.
If you really want to lose weight, changing your eating habits will make the biggest difference.
Research shows that moderate-intensity cardio exercise alone isn’t an effective way to lose weight. But pairing it with a healthy diet can be. Experts usually recommend a combination of nutritional changes and increasing physical activity to lose weight safely—though in general, dietary changes make a larger impact on weight loss than exercise does.
“To lose weight you have to eat fewer calories [than you expend],” Heller says, though she adds that eating healthy is far more important than merely cutting calories. The best way to learn what to eat and what is an appropriate number of calories to eat daily to reach your goals is to work with a registered dietitian.
If you’re not able to work with an expert, you can estimate your calorie needs yourself. To figure out how many calories you need to lose weight safely, you first need to calculate how many calories you need per day to maintain your current weight. You can do that by finding out your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories your body burns at rest. It’s tough to get a specific, accurate number unless you go get a test done by your doctor, but the easiest way to get a rough estimate on your own is by using this interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture, which takes both your estimated BMR and activity level into consideration. Once you have that number, subtract the number you plan to cut (whatever number you and your R.D. or healthcare provider have decided on for you) to find your new daily total calorie count.
If you don’t like the idea of counting calories, know that many women find that eating mindfully and choosing the filling, nutritious foods can keep calories in check without having to track every bite. And if you have a history of disordered eating or a pre-existing medical condition, you should always talk with a registered dietitian before cutting calories from your diet to make sure you are eating in a way that’s safe for you and your body and that you’re not adopting habits that may trigger unhealthier ones down the line.
Next, focus on the quality of your calories. “The quality of the food you eat will make all the difference in satiety, energy, and ability to reach a healthy weight,” Heller says. To nail the right balance of nutrients, she recommends following the plate method from the Harvard School of Public Health. Fill half your plate with non-starchy veggies like broccoli, carrots, spinach, and peppers; reserve a quarter of your plate for whole grain foods like barley, quinoa, and oats; save the last quarter for protein sources like chicken, fish, and beans. This is an easy way to portion out carbohydrates and protein while making sure you’re eating enough nutrient-packed vegetables.
At the end of the day, remember that the best workout for weight loss is a workout you actually enjoy and can stick with.
It’s important to note that HIIT isn’t for everyone. Whether you just don’t like it or are unable to do such a high-intensity exercise for whatever reason, at the end of the day, the best workouts for weight loss are the ones that you will actually do and stick with. Moving at all is better than not moving because you dread your exercise routine and can’t push yourself to go do something you hate. Exercise should be enjoyable, not a chore.
Again, we’re not suggesting that weight loss should be one of your fitness goals—there are so many great reasons to work out that have nothing to do with weight loss. But if it is something you’re trying to do, adopting healthy eating habits and building a fitness routine you enjoy and can do long-term can make a world of difference in reaching your goals and maintaining your weight over the years.