Go ahead, just try to scroll through Instagram right now and not come across a running post. No luck? That’s because it seems like everyone and their mother is lacing up their new running shoes, hitting the pavement, and losing major pounds in the process. Clearly, the classic endurance-building, heart-pounding, leaves-you-dripping-in-sweat activity is the key to weight-loss success, right?
Honestly, it’s a hard…maybe. The only real way to know if running will help you lose weight is to try it, says Charlie Seltzer, MD, a weight loss physician and exercise physiologist based in Philadelphia, PA. “Some people can do mini-sprints for 10 minutes three times a week and get some weight loss. But you also see people who train for Ironman triathlons who don’t lose any weight, even though they’re running 50 miles a week.”
Plus, there’s the whole thing about how weight loss in general is totally specific to each individual, based on their body type, how much they need to eat, how much weight they’d like to lose, and so on. But how do you know if running is worth a try to lose weight? Here are the basics, so you can decide whether to lace up your sneaks—or choose another workout instead.
Wait, so how much running would I have to do to lose weight?
Tbh, you’d have to commit to a serious schedule. That’s because if you want to lose, say, a pound a week, you need to burn about an extra 500+ calories every day. To do that via running alone, that’d likely ballpark around a 45-minute run every day of the week for a 160-pound woman, says Janet Hamilton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist, running coach, and founder of Running Strong in Atlanta, Georgia.
But really, that’s not terribly realistic. Something a bit more doable, like a 30-minute runfour days a week, would burn about 350 calories per run for the same 160-pound woman—which would lead to a weight loss of about 0.4 pounds each week, Hamilton says. So it’s not as much, but it’s still something.
Are there any downsides to running for weight loss?
There aren’t necessarily negatives to running for weight loss, but there are a few thing to keep in mind: First, knowing that the way your body responds to running for weight loss may be totally different than the way your best friend’s body responds, says Dr. Seltzer. That’s because exercise can tweak body composition, hormones, metabolism, and appetite in super individualized ways—all of which contribute to weight loss.
See what a Women’s Health editor packs for her perfect run:
Another could-be hiccup: As you up your running routine, your body might fight back by burning fewer calories throughout the rest of the day in order to hold onto precious energy, per a 2018 review in Obesity Reviews. It’s an evolutionary conservation mechanism that dates back to not knowing when your next meal was coming, explains Dr. Seltzer.
Not only that, but you could also see an uptick in your appetite—a small 2019 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that after moderate-intensity cardio five days a week (to burn 500 calories a day) for 12 weeks, overweight women lost body weight and fat, but in the process, their hunger levels went up and they ate more calories.
Okay, what about stomach fat? Can you lose that by running?
That, my friends, is called “spot-reduction” or “targeted fat loss,” which is basically impossible (you can’t pick-and-choose which spots of your body you want to tone). “You can burn fat by running, but where the fat comes from is largely genetically predetermined,” says Seltzer.
Of course, when it comes to burning body fat in general, running in any form can help with fat loss. One 2019 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that both interval training and moderate-intensity continuous training (i.e., going for a 30-minute jog) both reduced body fat percentage (though HIIT activity burned more—but more on that later). Why? Simply because, well, you’re burning calories while running.
Is there any way to make running more effective for weight loss?
A lot of research out there that shows high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts (think: sprints, hills, etc) seem to be most effective for weight loss, says Hamilton. In fact, HIIT might burn a third more body fat than moderate-intensity exercise (like jogging), possibly because you’re working harder and your body keeps burning fat post-exercise, per the same 2019 review British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Don’t love HIIT? Level up to Hamilton’s go-to weekly running routine to burn more calories for weight loss: one longer workout to increase endurance and stamina, another that adds hills (to strengthen your hips and provide intensity), and one interval training run (one minute running as fast as you can, one minute of walking recovery) to boost power and speed.
All right… But what if I’m really not into running?
Ultimately, the most effective form of exercise for weight loss is the one you enjoy the most, says Hamilton. That’s because you’ll stick to it. (Read: No hard feelings if you and the pavement aren’t fast friends.) “If the idea of running for weight loss makes you feel horrible, don’t do it,” says Dr. Seltzer.
After all, there are tons of other calorie-torchers like jumping rope, kickboxing, biking, rowing, and even yoga. And while strength training might not seem like a huge calorie-burning workout, it can boost metabolic rate so that you’re burning more calories throughout the day. Dr. Seltzer adds that you can even give it bigger cardio component by resting less between sets to keep your heart rate elevated.
Bottom Line: Running can definitely help you shed pounds—as long as it’s something you do often and regularly; paired with a healthy diet and lifestyle choices; and, you know, something you actually want to do.
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