Running seems to be the de facto weight loss activity. Go sit in any park when Spring hits and you’ll see everyone scurrying around in running attire, sweating their asses off and looking like they hate life (well, many of them).
Is that you? If that’s you, lean in because I’ve got some good information for you. I’m going to answer once and for all, for you as an individual, whether or not you should run for weight loss.
Why people think running is great for weight loss
If you believe the myth of calories-in, calories-out then running seems like a perfect activity. You just eat less food and then run around your town every day burning a bunch of those little bastard mini-Satans called calories.
It’s also an easy plan to execute. There’s no fancy equipment to mess with and no classes to sign up for. You just walk outside and run in a big ass circle. It’s free, it’s painful, it’s outdoors, it must be working.
Not so fast.
There’s 7 important factors we need to look at when it comes to deciding whether or not you should run for weight loss. I want you to contemplate these because there’s nothing I hate more than watching people punish themselves in the name of Nike thinking their plan is going to work. “Just do it” is terrible advice.
#1: Weight is not fat & running isn’t always great for fat loss.
The typical language sounds like this: “I want to lose weight so I’m going to start running.” But losing weight — as we’ve discussed before — is a goal that seriously lacks context.
What you actually want to lose is fat. And what a lot of runners lose — especially avid runners on calorie cutting diets — is lean muscle mass. Once you put “weight” in context, it becomes clear that’s not what you want to lose.
The reason runners lose muscle and not fat is the combination of the calorie deficit and the increase in cortisol, a stress hormone that has a side effect of storing belly fat and cannibalizing muscle. Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to insulin resistance.
This becomes even more true if you don’t get enough sleep, don’t rest enough in general, and are under a lot of lifestyle-driven stress.
This isn’t to say that all running is bad. Just know that the more you run the more you’ll experience the law of diminishing returns. Unfortunately, most runners seemed to be obsessed with increasing their running quantity.
#2: You can’t out-run ANTI foods.
There are very popular running programs, such as Couch to 5k, that promote running for weight loss. The problem is that they say nothing about nutrition. And what you’re eating is 80% of the process when it comes to achieving a healthy weight.
So we have a bunch of people running around and sweating while still eating all of the stuff they used to eat. Worse, they think running by itself is going to take them to the promised land. Worse worse, they sometimes use running as an excuse to eat things they’d normally try and avoid.
If you’re actively trying to “eat better,” then this may not apply to you. But it might still apply if you’re eating according to mainstream advice. Most people who are engaging in running are also engaging in calorie counting, fat-avoidance, and using “heart healthy” vegetable oils. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Your absolute first step you should be to make sure you’re truly eating healthy for your body.
#3: Running increases inflammation.
We talked about the elevated cortisol levels earlier, but didn’t really talk about why cortisol levels become chronically elevated with running.
Exercise is an inflammatory activity. In that regard, pretty much all exercise is going to promote cortisol production. This isn’t a bad thing. Cortisol has some important functions in the body and acute cortisol increases are normal.
The issue is that running often falls in the category of being excessive and physically abusive. You’re taking a pounding movement and repeating it thousands of times. Then you wake up and do it again tomorrow.
If you’re a daily runner, when does the body get to rest? When does it get to slow down on the cortisol production? When does it get to heal?
All of this adds up to one thing: chronic inflammation. Keep in mind that inflammation is a key marker for disease and a key deterrent to fat loss.
#4: Chronic stress from running can mess with your thyroid.
When it comes to health, happiness, and fat loss, there’s a lot to say for your thyroid. My discussion with Dr. Lo on Rebooted Body Podcast Episode 32 more than alluded to that fact.
If running creates chronic inflammation and a chronic stress response, that means there’s going to be an impact on your thyroid. And that impact can have implications in every corner of your body.
So what does that impact look like? It turns out it can be pretty extensive, ranging from low TSH production to the inhibition of T4 to T3 conversion, to excess estrogen. I highly recommend you take a few minutes and run through this article by Chris Kresser on stress and hypothyroid symptoms.
#5: Running drives serious hunger.
Losing excess fat can be a difficult process. And if you listen to conventional wisdom, you’re likely to be hungry during that process (especially true if you’re avoiding fat and limiting calories).
On a program like Total Body Reboot, this is a non-issue because the process is about giving the body exactly what it needs. On traditional approaches, hunger can become a nightmare.
Want to know what burning a lot of calories through punishing, inflammatory exercise does? It makes you want to eat. Everything. This is especially problematic for people who struggle with emotional eating or a dysfunctional relationship with food.
You won’t notice this right away, but as the weeks go by and the inflammation and stress continue to creep into your life, your hunger meter is going to go haywire. This has derailed many-a-dieter (people who run for weight loss).
#6: Running is a fantastic way to get injured.
The overall injury rate for non-competitive runners is 37% to 56%. Of those, 50-75% are over-use injuries (also contributed to by poor mechanics — more on that later). And 20% to 70% of sustained injuries will occur again in the runner later on.
Age, gender, body mass index, running hills, running on hard surfaces, participation in other sports, time of the year and time of the day are not significantly related to the injury rates. That means you can’t escape injury by being younger or running on trails.
In comparison, the injury rate for American Football is significantly lower.
That’s not surprising because injuries in most sports often require unplanned events (physical contact, mis-stepping, mis-turning, etc.) where injuries in running are inevitable due to the lack of knowledge of proper mechanics and the fact that the sport that prides itself on pushing the body beyond what it was designed to handle.
#7: Running can promote chronic physiological dysfunction.
And finally we arrive at one of the most compelling arguments that I can make against running: the long-term degradation of the body due to poor mechanics.
Are you a runner? Who taught you how to run? Oh, you think running is something everyone inherently knows how to do? Wrong.
There’s a proper running technique. And if you aren’t taught proper technique you’re subjecting your body to millions of punishing movements over the course of a lifetime.
These movements don’t just degrade your foot mechanics, but everything up the chain from there: your knees, your hips, your back, your shoulders, and your neck. Improper running technique is immensely destructive.
Even if running were the best exercise for fat loss (it’s not) I’d still argue, but at what cost?
What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger, but what you don’t know might kill you. And there’s a bunch of people running around thinking they’re doing something beneficial when they’re actually buying a ticket to future dependence. Dependence on walkers, wheelchairs, canes, custom orthotics, surgeons, and so on.
So, what’s my official stance on running for weight loss?
There’s two camps of people: those who like to run and those who don’t like to run. If you don’t like to run, stop running…immediately. In fact, stop doing shit you hate in general—in all categories.
If you enjoy running, that’s fine. I just want you to be aware of what you’re doing to your body so you can take the proper steps to mitigate the damage. I want you to enjoy your activity without doing yourself harm. And ultimately, I want you to reach your goals.
Perhaps you could consider a few adjustments…
- Consider reducing how much you run. Don’t make it your only activity. Supplement with other things. At the minimum, include rest days where you walk instead of run. Or, focus on other ways to run sometimes, such as mastering the mile.
- Consider getting a running coach to teach you proper form. This is imperative to make sure you’re reducing the toll on your body and to prevent irreparable harm.
- Consider minimalist shoes or barefoot running. This will help make sure you’re not forced into bad mechanics via modern footwear.
- Consider getting your diet and lifestyle on point. Enroll in a program like Total Body Reboot so you can learn to nourish your body with food, movement, sleep, and other self-care habits in an authentic, practical, and sustainable way.
- Consider limiting running to days where you get 7+ hours of sleep. Match your activity to your sleep patterns. Earn your activity by prioritizing sleep. If you run on poor sleep, you’re stacking major stressors on top of each other. That accelerates the damage.
Seriously, though, let me repeat this: If you don’t truly enjoy running, stop doing it. There’s too much downside to just be doing it for weight loss. You can lose all the body fat you need to lose without running.