Running can build endurance, strengthen joints, and get rid of stress. But running is also a great workout for weight loss, especially for beginners.
“If you want to burn a lot of calories fast, running is one of the best exercises you can do—especially when done at a high intensity,” Stephanie Blozy, the owner of Fleet Feet of West Hartford, Connecticut who has a masters degree in exercise science, tells Health. “Because both feet are off the ground mid-stride when you’re running, it’s really just a series of jumps. The faster you jump and run, the more energy is required of your muscles, so the more calories burned.”
To lose weight, the math is simple: You need to make sure your calorie intake doesn’t exceed the number of calories you burn. That means either eating less, moving more, or doing some combination of both. Running helps you create a calorie deficit that allows you to shed pounds and maintain your weight when you reach your goal. It also can lift your mood and give you a thrilling feeling of freedom, which in turn boosts your mental health (hello, runner’s high).
Here’s the amount of weight you can expect to lose by running, how to get started if weight loss is your main goal, and the right way to keep burning calories as you run—so you continue to lose pounds and aren’t tempted to throw in the towel.
How much weight you can lose by running
A 140-pound person burns 13.2 calories per minute by running, according to the American Council of Exercise. And the more you weigh, the more calories you’ll burn (it takes more energy to move more weight). This means heavier people will experience more of a calorie burn at the onset when they start running. It explains why you and a friend might not burn the exact same amount of calories even if you ran the same distance at the same pace together.
But running for weight loss works another way too: It burns a significant amount of calories after you’re done. That’s called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, and research published in the The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that the afterburn lasts five minutes longer for runners than it did for walkers.
How to start running for weight loss
If you’ve never run before, you need to start slow and build up your running tolerance. “Stick to a pace in which you’d be able to hold an easy conversation while running with a friend, and aim for 10 to 15 minutes to start,” New York-based Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and founder of Movement Vault tells Health. Thinking in terms of time versus distance can also making running seem less daunting (and less like the torture of middle school gym class).
When you find a pace and distance that feels good, start increasing your time or distance by no more than 5% to 10% per week. “Otherwise, you increase your chance of injury,” says Blozy. “This is something I call ‘training in the too’s’: too much, too fast, too soon.” Bottom line: Listen to your body. If you feel ready to go further, go for it; if you’re starting to have foot, ankle, or hip pain, or you just don’t feel good overall, you need to back off a little.
How to keep up the weight loss
Not all running is created equal, and the fitter you get, the easier it’ll be to maintain the pace you started with. The problem, though, is that your body will have adjusted to this pace, and you might find yourself in the dreaded weight loss plateau. “The key to burning maximal calories when running is keeping the intensity high so you don’t settle into a steady state, which can happen when you run at a comfortable pace,” says Blozy.
To prevent your body from getting used to running, you need to switch things up and continue challenging your body with longer runs, sprints, or shorter, higher-intensity runs. “The most optimal protocol to use for weight loss would be incorporating sprint intervals of varying distances, intensities, and rest periods between intervals,” says Wickham. Think: Picking up your pace during every other song on your playlist or running a quarter-mile fast followed by a quarter-mile at an easy job, then repeating several times.
Sprint intervals—or hill intervals, where you’re running up an incline repeatedly with recovery time in between—accelerate your calorie burn both in the moment and for the rest of the day, says Blozy. “So even when you’re sitting at your desk, you’re burning more calories than if you didn’t exercise,” she explains. The more intense the run, the more calories your body will need to burn after exercise to aid recovery.
But at the end of the day, what’s going to help you the most in your weight loss goals is consistency. “All aspects of fitness, including running for weight loss, rely on consistency to achieve your goal,” says Wickham. “Find a pace, duration, intensity that works for you and stick with it for the long run. This is truly the only way to create lasting change that will yield lasting results.”
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