Is Running the Best Kind of Exercise for Losing Weight?

A group of five people jogging. Is running the best exercise for weight loss?

If you’re looking to lose some weight, you need to consider the role of both diet and exercise. Assuming you’ve got the diet part under control, is running the best kind of exercise for losing weight?

There are plenty of different ways you could exercise to burn a few calories, and people may have their own preferences about what works best for them. But if you’re looking for the one activity that’s most efficient and most accessible, it’s probably running.

Calories Burned Running Compared With Other Activities

One simple way to identify the “best” activity for weight loss is to compare how many calories a person would burn while doing that activity. After all, a major goal of exercising for weight loss is to burn some calories.

Harvard Medical School has a great list of different activities and how many calories you would burn doing that activity for 30 minutes. For comparison, here are a twelve varying activities:

  • Running at 6mph: 444 calories
  • Running at 10mph: 733 calories
  • Bicyling at 12mph: 355 calories
  • Basketball Game: 355 calories
  • Swimming Laps, vigorous: 444 calories
  • Walking at 3.5mph: 178 calories
  • Circuit Training: 355 calories
  • High Impact Aerobics: 311 calories
  • Stationary Rowing, Vigorous: 377 calories
  • Weight Lifting, General: 133 calories
  • Stationary Bike, Vigorous: 466
  • Hiking: 266 calories

A few things to note here.

I included “Running at 10mph” as a point of comparison. It clearly burns way more calories than anything else, but it’s also not sustainable for most people. Unless you’re a highly trained runner, you’re not going to run at 10mph for any length of time. That would mean running at 6:00 minutes per mile.

Running at 6mph, on the other hand, is quite achievable. This is a 10:00 minute mile, which is within reach for most people once they’ve built up a little endurance. And that, or a speed close to it, is going to be sustainable for 30 minutes. In those 30 minutes, you’d burn close to 450 calories.

Now compare that to the other items on the list with a similar calorie burn: Vigorous Swimming Laps and Vigorous Stationary Bike. Conceivably, you could burn as many calories with either of these activities. But most people won’t be able to sustain a “vigorous” level of activity for 30 minutes.

Running Is the Most Efficient Form of Exercise for Weight Loss

This leads me a key argument about why running is the best form of exercise for weight loss. It’s the most efficient form of exercise.

Running at 5 to 6 mph is sustainable, and with a little bit of training you can maintain that pace for 30 to 60 minutes. Other, more vigorous, exercises may burn as many or more calories. But most people won’t be able to continue them for a long period of time.

The handlebars of a bike, with the street in the background. Biking is another great form of exercise.
Biking is another great form of exercise, but at the same intensity it burns fewer calories than running.

Biking at 12mph would be a similar, moderate level of effort, and that comes in at 355 calories. Not bad, but it’s only 80% of what you would burn running. Similarly, the basketball game and circuit training come in at around 350 calories. These are all sustainable, but they burn significantly fewer calories.

Then there are activities like walking and hiking. These are definitely sustainable, and they’re probably the easiest thing for people to start with if they don’t have the endurance to run. But in terms of calories per time spent exercising, these are far less effective.

Other Reasons To Choose Running

Despite raw efficiency, there are plenty of other reasons to choose running as your main form of exercise for weight loss.

You don’t need anyone else to run. Sports like basketball or tennis can be fun, but you need to coordinate your schedule with other people. This gives you a lot less flexibility around how often and when you can work out.

You don’t need fancy equipment to run. Cycling is another great form of exercise, albeit slightly less efficient. But you need to invest a lot more money in equipment if you’re going to be cycling. The same goes for weight lifting and some team sports.

A man running on a treadmill, with several other treadmills in view. While you can go to a gym to run, you definitely don't have to.
While you can definitely choose to go to a gym to run, you don’t have to – unlike other forms of exercise.

You don’t need a facility to go run. Gym memberships aren’t cheap. A barebones membership to Planet Fitness will set you back $120/year, while many gyms will cost you $5-600/year. If you do use them regularly, that can be a good investment. But if you’re looking to exercise on the cheap, it doesn’t work. And for some activities – like swimming, racquetball, aerobics classes – you probably need to pay for access to a facility.

You don’t need to travel anywhere to run. Many other forms of exercise require you to leave the house and go somewhere – a basketball court, a gym, a pool – before you can get started. I once lived two blocks from a Planet Fitness, and that was the only time I actually went to the gym. Convenience is key, and I love being able to walk out my door and immediately start running. I don’t want to add 30 to 60 minutes of extra downtime in my day traveling to and from a place to work out.

You don’t need to learn how to run. While there are certainly some things to learn about running, anyone can do it. Put on shoes and put one foot in front of the other. If you can’t breath, slow down. Compare this to cycling or swimming, and there’s definitely a higher learning curve. That gets even higher if you’re talking about some organized activities, like racquet sports.

Is Running the Best Exercise For You?

Ultimately, the best exercise for weight loss is the one that you can actually commit to.

If you have access to a pool and you can commit to swimming, go for it. If you love basketball, and you’re going to play four times a week, that’s great.

But if you’ve found that you’ve had trouble committing to a form of exercise in the past, try running. Make running a habit and commit to it for 30 days.

It’s easy, convenient, and accessible. And with fewer barriers, you’re more likely to be able to commit to it for the long term.

I’m curious – has running worked out for you? Or do you prefer another form of exercise? Drop a comment below and share.

Is Running the Best Kind of Exercise for Losing Weight?

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