The Truth About Running for Weight Loss

This guide to running for weight loss by running will help you learn how to burn fat with jogging and running workouts. (Image: YakubovAlim/iStock/GettyImages)

The internet buzzes with the latest workout fads, gadgets and diets you need to try if you want to lose weight. But we have a little secret for you. You don't need to drop major dollars on a trendy weight-loss program.

In fact, all you need to start torching calories for weight loss is a good pair of running sneakers. Plus, in the time it takes you to drive to and from the hottest new fitness studio, you could already have run four miles and burned a few hundred calories.

So what do you need to know about running for weight loss? Not much — humans were born to run, after all. But if you're new to pounding the pavement, it's a smart idea to start slow. You can also maximize your weight-loss results by cross-training and whipping your diet into shape.

Exercise is even more effective when paired with a healthy diet. Download the MyPlate app to track your calories consumed and burned for a complete picture of your overall health.

Running for Weight Loss

The goal of any weight-loss plan is to create a caloric deficit, which means you burn more calories than you consume on a regular basis. Only when you have created and sustained this deficit will your body stop using immediate energy supplies from excess calories and begin to tap into stored body fat. You can create this deficit by reducing your calorie intake or increasing your activity level — a combination of both is ideal.

Any activity you do will help you burn calories, but running to lose weight happens to be one of the best. That's because it's not easy. Propelling your body forward with speed over varying terrain requires effort from all your major muscle groups and consumes energy in the form of calories. Of course, how many calories you'll burn depends on several variables, but more on that later.

Unlike swimming, biking, rowing or even jumping rope, running requires no gym membership and no equipment besides a good pair of running shoes. You can do it anywhere at any time.

Get Started With Jogging

Raring to go? Slow down just a minute. Before you can run, you need to jog. Jumping straight into running for weight loss as a beginner can place a lot of stress on your body. It can leave you feeling sore and, if you're not careful, it could even lead to injury.

That's why it's important to build a foundation with jogging. It's not as high impact as running, and it still burns a fair amount of calories, which is key when you want to want to make weight-loss progress pronto.

So, just how many calories can you burn while jogging for weight loss? That depends on several factors, the most important of which are:

  • How much you weigh
  • How fast you run
  • How long you jog

Those are the most predictable factors that researchers can use to estimate how many calories a person can burn while doing a particular activity. According to the University of Texas, here are some other factors that can influence calorie burn:

  • Climate: You burn more calories when it's hot outside.
  • Terrain: Running over varied terrain and uphill is harder and burns more calories.
  • Genetics: Some people just burn more calories than others.
  • Body composition: People who have more muscle mass burn more calories.
  • Fitness level: Fitter people will burn fewer calories jogging than less conditioned people, mile for mile.

Wearing a heart rate monitor is the best way to get an accurate idea of just how many calories you'll burn jogging. Otherwise, you can use these estimates from Harvard Health Publishing:

In 30 minutes, a person weighing 125 pounds will burn:

  • 135 calories at a pace of 4 mph
  • 150 calories at a pace of 4.5 mph
  • 240 calories at a pace of 5 mph

A person weighing 155 pounds will burn:

  • 167 calories at a pace of 4 mph
  • 186 calories at a pace of 4.5 mph
  • 298 calories at a pace of 5 mph

And a 185-pound person will burn:

  • 200 calories at a pace of 4 mph
  • 222 calories at a pace of 4.5 mph
  • 355 calories at a pace of 5 mph

Tip

Keep in mind that a jogging pace is somewhat subjective. You can walk or jog at a pace of 4 mph. A seasoned runner might feel that running at a pace of 6.5 miles per hour is more of a jog than a run. Typically, a jog is somewhere between 4 and 6 mph.

Pick Up the Pace

Those calorie burn counts are impressive, but eventually, you'll be ready to turn things up a notch for even better results. The same variables apply when determining your calorie burn from running as they did for jogging; however, there's a broader range of paces that qualify as running.

Depending on your fitness level, 5.2 miles an hour might feel like a pretty tough run, or you might not feel maxed out until you're running at a pace greater than 8 mph. Hey, anything's possible — if not right now, then in the future.

So what's your calorie-burning potential? Again, it depends on all those variables discussed above, but Harvard estimates say:

In 30 minutes, a person weighing 125 pounds will burn:

  • 300 calories at a pace of 6 mph
  • 330 calories at a pace of 6.7 mph
  • 375 calories at a pace of 7.5 mph
  • 435 calories at a pace of 8.6 mph

A person weighing 155 pounds will burn:

  • 372 calories at a pace of 6 mph
  • 409 calories at a pace of 6.7 mph
  • 465 calories at a pace of 7.5 mph
  • 539 calories at a pace of 8.6 mph

And a 185-pound person will burn:

  • 444 calories at a pace of 6 mph
  • 488 calories at a pace of 6.7 mph
  • 555 calories at a pace of 7.5 mph
  • 644 calories at a pace of 8.6 mph

Tip

While a pound of fat may, indeed, contain 3,500 calories, you won't necessarily lose a pound of fat by burning 3,500 calories. Calories can come from other sources besides fat.

In fact, according to an article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in March 2014, especially in the beginning of a weight-loss program, the body burns primarily stored carbohydrate and protein for energy, as well as a little fat.

Set a Goal

Do you have a specific weight-loss goal? Are you trying to lose 20 pounds for a beach vacation, or 6 pounds per month? Although fat loss is a complex topic that can't be put into a neat little equation, the basic idea is that the greater the gap between calorie intake and expenditure, the bigger the calorie deficit and the more weight you'll lose. Therefore, you can plan a rough sketch of how fast, how far and how often you need to run to reach your specific goal.

One theory you can use as a guide is that 1 pound of fat contains 3,500 calories. This is debated (see above), but theoretically, creating a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories would lead to a pound of fat loss, according to the University of Michigan University Health Service.

Let's say you want to lose one pound a week. To burn this amount of fat by jogging or running alone, you'd need to burn 500 calories per day. If you weigh around 155 pounds, you would need to jog at a pace of 5 mph for a little less than an hour seven days a week. Or, you could run at a faster pace of about 8 mph for 30 minutes each day.

But many people want to burn more than that in a week. To reach 2 pounds of fat loss a week, you would need to double your efforts. If you're jogging, you'd need to jog for almost two hours a day. Even running for an hour a day is pretty tough and likely unsustainable. And if you don't want an overuse injury (trust us, you don't), you're going to need to do more than just run to lose a significant amount of weight.

Change Up Your Routine

If you add variety to your routine, you'll challenge your body in new ways that can increase your calorie burn, improve cardiovascular fitness and make you stronger.

One of the ways you can do this is by seeking out new terrain. If you've been running to lose weight along the same flat path each day, it's time to get more adventurous. Find some hills and get your legs pumping. Running uphill can dramatically increase your calorie-burning potential. Try doing hill repeats by running to the top of a hill, walking back down and running up the hill again. This will build strength in your legs and further challenge your cardiorespiratory system.

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is another way to increase the intensity and variety of your running routine. Interval training involves alternating periods of intense effort with periods of recovery.

There are many ways to do an interval workout, but as an example: Jog for two minutes, sprint for 45 seconds and alternate between the two for 30 minutes. This might take some working up to, but it will result in a higher total calorie burn.

There's scientific support for the efficacy of HIIT for weight loss. A meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine in February 2018 examined the results of 39 studies on HIIT involving 617 subjects. The findings showed that HIIT training was more time-efficient and effective at reducing total-body and abdominal fat. In addition, HIIT running proved to be even more effective than HIIT cycling.

Cross-Train and Rest

Running every day can be hard on the body. Doing the same activity all the time, especially one as intense as running, can lead to repetitive stress injuries. It can also lead to burnout. When your goal is to lose weight, it's important to keep your routine fun and interesting so that you are more likely to stick with it. Even if you love running, do a different activity two times a week: cycling, rowing and swimming are great complements to running that utilize different muscle groups.

Strength training will help you not only become a stronger runner but also increase your weight-loss potential. Although running is a weight-bearing activity that builds muscle, it doesn't target all the major muscle groups. Going into the gym a couple times a week to do a total-body strength training routine — including exercises for your chest, shoulders, arms, abs, back and legs — will make you a stronger runner.

Having more lean muscle mass will also increase the number of calories you burn at rest. That's because lean muscle is more metabolically active — as much as four times more, according to Paige Kinucan and Len Kravitz, PhD. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn around the clock — even when you're doing nothing at all.

Lastly, it's crucial to allow your body to recover. Take at least one day off each week to rest or engage in active recovery. You can walk, do yoga or do nothing, as long as you are not doing anything too intense. Failing to allow your body to recover can lead to injury and overtraining, both of which will sideline you and keep you from reaching your weight-loss goals.

Raise the Stakes

If you really want to lose weight fast, running alone isn't going to get you there. Even HIIT running won't work miracles if your diet isn't healthy and conducive to weight loss. You can significantly increase your weight loss if you combine running with a nutritious, calorie-reduced diet.

Think about it — if you can burn 385 calories with a daily jog or run and you can cut 385 calories from your daily diet, you've just doubled your calorie deficit and halved the amount of time it will take you to get to your goal weight.

Cutting that amount of calories isn't that hard. You can cut pretty close to that amount just by nixing the sugary flavored coffee you drink on the way to work every morning.

But it's not just about what you cut out. It's also about adding in healthy foods that will keep you feeling full and satisfied with fewer calories. Those foods include protein from chicken, fish and beans; fiber and complex carbohydrates from fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains; and healthy fats from nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

If you add more of these foods to your diet, you'll naturally "crowd out" other unhealthy foods — and have more energy for your runs.

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