Running to lose weight: How it really works

Running to lose weight: Image of woman running up subway stairs
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Are you running to lose weight? Or at least thinking about it? Running is a popular form of exercise for many reasons. Not only does this easily accessible form of cardiovascular exercise have brilliant health benefits – like being able to boost your mood, lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and help you sleep better – running can also help reduce body fat.  

If you're trying to lose weight by grabbing yourself one of the best treadmills or running outside with the best running headphones and not seeing any results, we’re going to get to the bottom of how this form of exercise can safely help you manage excess fat. We will delve into the research and reveal how much running you’ll have to do, what factors affect weight loss, how many calories you should be consuming, and what’s the best exercise to drop some extra weight. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to understand how running to lose weight can work safely for you.

• Related: Best sports bra for running

Running to lose weight: Does it work?

Yes, running really can help to support weight management and it can do so through a few avenues.

"It helps regulate an individual’s metabolic rate, helps reduce stress which impacts weight management, helps manage inflammation – especially systemic/chronic inflammation – helps improve skeletal muscle mass quality and quantity, and can help reduce body fat," said Catherine Saenz, assistant professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida.

As Dr. Saenz notes, running has its ‘many’ benefits, especially related to the cardiovascular system, however, running to lose weight goes hand in hand with dietary habits and genetics.

She says: "Research has found that running may or may not result specifically in weight loss, the weight loss component seems to be greatly impacted by dietary habits, in conjunction with exercise, and genetics."

And the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases agrees. The institute believes a person’s: race, age, sex, sleep, weight, and calorie intake can all have an impact on weight loss.

Running to lose weight: Image shows woman holding green smoothie

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Calories in particular, which are the units of energy we get from the food and drinks we consume, are important to consider. That’s because when we eat, the calories in the food are converted to physical energy or stored in our body as fat. These calories will store in your body as fat unless you use them up, according to The Mayo Clinic. To use them up, you should reduce your calorie intake, forcing the body to draw on this energy, or increase your physical activity. Running provides a means of ‘increasing energy expenditure’ and burning calories. And it’s believed that running burns more calories than most other types of exercise like weight training or cycling – it's why treadmills are one of the best exercise machines to lose weight.

But according to Dr Saenz, it’s not just about your caloric intake, you also need to concentrate on the caloric quality.

She says: "Some may argue quality maybe even more important than quantity. In fact, not everyone needs to be in a calorie deficit, but all individuals do need to consume a diet rich in essential nutrients, that is satiating, and that is sustainable.

"The dietary approach should also be reflective of the individual’s health needs. Rather than just cutting calories, it is better to find a diet rich in high-quality, whole foods with enough variety to support the many nutrients the body needs, especially when starting or continuing an exercise program."

How often should you work out? Woman stretching on a bridge

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How much running do you have to do to lose weight?

As we touched on before, running to lose weight doesn’t just happen overnight and is highly dependent on a number of factors.

According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, when it comes to weight loss, there needs to be a balance between ‘reducing energy intake’ and ‘exercise-induced energy expenditure’.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to the balance of calories burned and calories consumed as caloric balance. According to the CDC, if you are maintaining weight, you are in a caloric balance. This means you are roughly consuming the same amount of calories you are burning.

If you are in caloric excess, you are eating more calories than you are burning – meaning you will gain weight. While if you are in a calorie deficit, you are burning more calories than you are eating.

But as Dr. Saenz highlights: "Caloric prescription is highly personalized and extremely variable."

Generally speaking, as stated by the American Council on Exercise, a 120-pound person will burn 11.4 calories a minute while running, a 140-pound person will shed 13.2 calories, a person who weighs 160 pounds will burn 15.1 calories, while a 180-pound person might burn 17. 

What’s the best exercise for weight loss?

According to Dr. Saenz, any movement that helps an individual feel better is ‘beneficial’. But when talking about weight loss in particular: "Emerging evidence suggests high-intensity exercise and or resistance training improve body composition best," Dr Saenz adds.

"Combine this with a healthy diet, proper sleep hygiene, stress management options, and ensuring other aspects of the body are happy – like our hormones, microbiome, and mental health – and we are looking at a measured and sustainable health and weight management journey."

Those looking for other forms of weight loss exercise could consider the following:

  • Jump rope – a full-body workout, this form of exercise is thought to burn around 10 calories a minute.
  • Weight trainingit’s estimated that a 155-pound person burns around 112 calories per 30 minutes of lifting weights.
  • Swimmingcurrent research suggests this form of cardio is one of the best forms for burning calories. That’s because the average 155-pound person might burn 360 calories while swimming vigorous laps.
Becks Shepherd

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.