Is Running Really Best for Weight Loss?

Running is one of the most popular fitness activities in the world—in fact, in 2016, more than 64 million people went running or jogging in the U.S. alone. As popularity has increased, so too have the variety of activities designed to attract new runners to the sport. Running clubs continue popping up in cities big and small as running has evolved into a social activity. Events such as The Color Run, mud runs and even a run where you're chased by zombies have changed the perception of running to become less about work and more about fun.

As a result, running has developed a reputation for being the "go-to" exercise for people wanting to lose weight and get fit. Want quads of steel? Run. Want to lose fat quickly? Run. Want to become the fitness envy of your friends and family? Run. But is running really the best way to go about reaching your goals? If running isn't an option because of physical limitations or it's just not your idea of fun, do you have to become a runner in order to be successful?

The short answer is "no." If the only running you ever do is when you're chased by your kids in a game of tag, you can still reach your goals. If you've been a runner in the past but never saw the results you were hoping for, changing to activities other than running could be the key to your progress.

Full disclosure: I've been a runner for the past 16 years and I'm also a certified running coach. I love running, but frankly, it's not for everyone—and that's okay. If you don't want to or can't run, there are plenty of other activities out there to try. Depending on how much you're running and your weight-loss goals, running could actually be hindering your progress more than helping. Don't be fooled into thinking that running is the magic answer to all of your health and fitness dilemmas.

Why Running Might Not Be Your Best Option

Running is a high-impact activity that puts strain on your muscles, joints and cardiovascular system. There's nothing wrong with slowly progressing into a running program if you have a solid fitness base first. If you're new to exercise or have been inactive for quite some time, though, jumping into running feet first (no pun intended) could be setting you up for injury or physical burnout.

Keith Stafford, a certified personal trainer and owner of Nashville's Fit Body Bootcamp, believes that running doesn't necessarily make a person stronger. "In fact, a lot of people that focus on running don't develop strength in other areas of the body," he explains. "I have worked with a lot of clients that have come to me after running injuries (typically feet and knees) and weight gain due to decreased physical activity." Stafford's solution typically includes HIIT workouts. "This is done in a manner that doesn't aggravate their previous running injuries, yet allows them to work at high bursts of intensity for short amounts of time, burning body fat and increasing overall health with the minimum amount of time commitment," he says.

In addition to the risk of injury, if you are an experienced runner with a weight-loss goal, it's easy to assume that more is better. "I'll train for a marathon!" you think. "That's a great way to shed pounds!" The reality is that distance running can make weight loss more difficult. "Many of us make the mistake of assuming that if we run the way professional runners do, we will lean out to look like them," explains Iris Lami, personal trainer and co-manager of Gingerhill Farm Retreat. "But professional runners don't end up as lean as they do because they are professional runners; they are professional runners because they are naturally lean, giving them an advantage in the sport."

When you're training for distance events such as half and full marathons, it's very important to balance the demands of training with your food intake. If you cut calories too much, you won't have the energy to complete your longer runs. If you don't cut calories enough, weight loss becomes difficult. The balance of calories in versus calories out becomes very tricky, which is why lots of running isn't the answer to your weight-loss goals.

A Better Exercise Plan for Weight Loss

Just because running alone isn't the ideal activity for weight loss doesn't mean there isn't a place for it in a well-rounded exercise routine. Certified strength and conditioning specialist Ivana Chapman says her clients have seen better results when they incorporate other activities into their routine. "Since there is a strong public perception that you need to run to lose weight or get fit, many clients come to me because they're not getting the results they want with running or they don't want to run anymore since they never really enjoyed it," she explains. "Running may make you a slighter smaller version of yourself, but it's muscle that gives your body the strong, athletic shape that many people want."

Ivana sees more success when clients incorporate weight training into their routines. "My clients find that they're able to get the shape they want and they develop [the] more 'toned' appearance that comes from building muscle and losing fat," she shares. "Many clients also notice that their posture gets better when they add a balanced weight training program to their routines. Those clients who continue running in conjunction with weight training feel like stronger runners with more resistance to fatigue and the ability to push harder in the latter half of their runs."

Dr. Jason Way, founder of NexGen Natural Medicine, believes the type of runs you're doing are key to seeing results. "If you really like running, sprints can do much more due to the explosive nature of the activity that actually stimulates the growth of muscle and increases metabolism for hours after you're finished," he says. Way also recommends combining sprints with high-intensity interval training to increase your excess postexercise oxygen consumption (commonly referred to as EPOC) which is the calories you continue burning after the workout is over. "Resistance training is another great option which will focus on building more muscle mass, which in turn increases the basal metabolic rate to translate into faster and more effective weight loss," he explains. 

Nothing should discourage you from becoming a runner or continuing your running career if that's what you enjoy. If you like running and it's giving you the fitness and weight-loss results you desire, then keep it up! If you've always wanted to try it and feel physically ready for the demands of a regular running routine, go for it! Keep in mind that variety is important, though, so don't get stuck in the same routine day after day. And if you've never tried and don't want to start, or you've tried and just don't want to continue, remember that running isn't the holy grail exercise—you can still reach your goals to become a healthier and fitter you through a variety of other physical activities.