Running for Weight Loss: Everything You Need to Know

So you hopped on the scale and didn’t like what you saw. Now you’re thinking about trying out running for weight loss.

The good news? It works. Running is an extremely effective tool for controlling your weight. If you’re consistent, it will help you drop some pounds, and in the long term it will help you keep them off.

The bad news? It won’t happen over night and jogging won’t handle the problem alone.

Running isn’t a magic bullet. No amount of running – or anything, really – will help you drop twenty pounds in a week. Nor will it make the pounds magically melt off while you continue to eat anything and everything.

But if you still want to give it a go, here’s everything you need to know to be successful running for weight loss.

To understand weight management, you have to understand the balance of food and activity.

Understanding Weight Gain, Loss, and Management

At the end of the day, you gain or lose weight based on two things – the amount of calories you consume and the amount of calories you burn.

If these two things are roughly equal, your weight will be stable and stay the same. If they’re out of wack, you’ll either gain or lose weight slowly over time.

On the calorie burn side, you can break things down into three basic categories: your basal metabolic rate, your general activity level, and your time spent exercising (i.e. running).

We’ll talk more about the specifics of these below. But I’ll use myself as an example, when I started losing weight.

I’m 6’1″, and I weighed 210. I was fairly sedentary. I used an online calculator to determine that my basal metabolic rate was approximately 1,936 calories per day and my general activity level contributed another 388 calories. Without taking into account any additional exercise, I’d expect to burn 2,300 to 2,400 calories per day.

On the calories consumed side, you can track and add up everything you eat. Let’s say that I was consuming on average 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day.

You’ll notice that this isn’t a huge difference. But I’m consuming a few hundred extra calories every day. Over time, this adds up.

A simplistic way to think about it is that a pound of fat is equivalent to approximately 3,500 calories. So at this rate, I’d gain a pound every week or two.

If I brought those two numbers in line with each other, my weight would stabilize instead of increasing. But to lose weight, I would essentially have to flip them – so I was burning 500 or so calories more per day than I was consuming.

Running can help tilt the equation towards weight loss – assuming you aren’t eating too much.

Where Running Fits In to the Weight Loss Formula

So where does running fit into this? Let’s go back to our three forms of calorie burn.

First is your basal metabolic rate. Essentially, this is how much energy your body uses over the course of the day to function – maintaining your temperature, digesting food, those kinds of things. In the short term, there’s not much you can do to change this.

Second is your general activity level. If you move about a lot throughout the day or if you work a job that requires a lot of movement, you’ll burn calories doing that. People often don’t think of this as “exercise,” but it is. It’s just spread out. If you’re intentional about it, you can usually change this to moderately increase it.

Third is your time spent exercising intentionally. If you run for a half hour, you’ll burn a fairly predictable number of calories. To be more specific, you’d probably burn around 400 calories, give or take. Let’s say you run four or five days per week. You’d be netting an average of 1,800 calories burned each week.

For more on this topic, check out this blog post on whether running is the best exercise for losing weight.

Assuming you’re eating a balanced diet that roughly equals your regular calorie burn throughout the day, this would put you on track to lose about 2 pounds per month. Not huge, but it adds up over time.

Putting the Role of Diet in Perspective

That is, however, a big assumption. And this is where some people go wrong. They assume that if they run enough, they can eat whatever they want.

In the previous example, let’s say I was eating 3,000 calories per day. If I went for a run and added an extra 400 calories on to my daily calorie burn (2,400), I’d only be burning 2,800 calories. That’s still a net surplus – leading to weight gain.

Instead, I needed to find a way to consume less. Otherwise, I’d have to run an hour or more every day to make a small dent in my weight.

In my case, I decided to use MyFitnessPal to track my eating and calories. There are plenty of other ways you can go about this. Programs like Weight Watchers use points to help you decide what to eat. Intermittent fasting helps you eliminate extra meals and snacking.

The method isn’t as important as the outcome – making better food choices and eating fewer calories.

For the first month, I was aggressive with it. I cut my food consumption to about 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day. Even if I wasn’t exercising, I could have kept losing weight.

But this wasn’t sustainable. It was great in the short term to kick things off, but by April I was getting a bit lax. I was doing better – eating around 2,500 calories per day. I was making some healthier choices and limiting the amount of junk I ate, and I didn’t feel like I was “dieting” anymore. It just felt like I was eating.

If I wasn’t running, I’d have been out of balance again and (slowly) gaining weight.

Instead, my running was increasing and I was able to maintain my slow steady weight loss through the summer until I surpassed my goal weight. That was the key to helping me lose the weight and keep it off.

Setting a Reasonable Goal for Running and Weight Loss

If you’re going to be successful, you need to set realistic goals for yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll give up. Consistency is key.

Here are a few rules of thumb. When you’re cutting your calorie consumption, you shouldn’t go below 1,200 if you’re a woman or 1,500 if you’re a man. While fasting can be healthy in the short term, eating below these levels for any significant amount of time is unhealthy.

The more food you’re cutting out, the harder it will be to sustain. You might be able to cut down to 1,500 calories for a month or two. But in the long term you shouldn’t be eating more than 250 to 500 calories below what you burn through your basal metabolic rate and your general activity level.

You should also limit how much you burn through exercise. There is such a thing as too much, and if you do too much you’ll end up injuring yourself. Early on, I’d focus on building up to 30 minutes per day, five days per week. This is enough to be significant – about 2,000 calories per week or about 300 calories per day on average.

If you want to do more, then do more. But I wouldn’t do any more than 60 minutes per day on average. You might have one day that’s longer, but you should compensate by reducing some other days. If you ran seven days a week, 60 minutes per day, that’d be about 800 calories per day – and that’s a lot.

Keep in mind, also, that the more you run the more your body needs to recover. And it needs food (and sleep) to do that. Going to the extreme in running and the extreme in cutting calories at the same time is a recipe for disaster. So if one gets more extreme, make the other more moderate.

If you put it all together, you could probably cut out somewhere between 250 to 750 calories per day in food and increase your exercising by 250 to 750 calories per day. Average it out – and avoid doing the extreme in both – and you’re looking at 500 to 1,000 calories per day.

That’s a recipe for losing one to two pounds per month, and that’s what medical professionals typically suggest as healthy, sustainable, weight loss goals.

Write down your running plan to make it a habit. Stay consistent.

Make Running a Habit and Run Consistently

Perhaps the most important thing is to be consistent.

It’s important to know that your weight fluctuates all the time. You can “gain” and “lose” several pounds throughout the course of the day. But real weight loss happens over the course of weeks and months.

So make a plan and stick with it for at least thirty days. Here are some tips on how to make running a habit and stick with it.

The most important thing is to make a specific plan, write it down, and track it. Try to minimize any obstacles that could prevent you from running.

Running consistently for 30 days will also make it easier. At first, you may not be able to run for 30 minutes, and that’s ok. You can alternate bouts of walking and running until you can jog for a full 30 minutes. It may seem impossible at first, but soon enough you’ll be able to jog slowly and comfortably for the entire time.

The key – to both losing weight and to getting better at running – is consistency.

An athletic woman whose had success running for weight loss.
Stay at it and stay consistent, and you can find success running for weight loss.

Have You Had Success Running for Weight Loss?

Running really helped me get my weight under control. I dropped 40 pounds this year – from 210 to 170 – and I’ve kept it off.

Compare that to last year. I was able to drop from 205 to 175, but I wasn’t running. And after a few months of weight loss, it slowly started creeping back… until I was heavier than I started.

You may want to check out this list of frequently asked questions about running and weight loss.

I hope running can help you, too, and I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

Good, bad, or ugly… how has running for weight loss gone for you?

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